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Arafat’s widow: we have to solve mystery

‘This is a consecration, it is not a desecration’

Suha Arafat became emotional as she watched footage of Palestinian dignitaries pay tribute to her dead husband Yasser. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Suha Arafat became emotional as she watched footage of Palestinian dignitaries pay tribute to her dead husband Yasser. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

As a tearful Suha Arafat watched the reburial of her husband Yasser’s remains on TV yesterday, she was adamant that exhuming the late Palestinian leader was an act of “consecration not desecration”.

“It’s my duty towards history, towards my people, towards my daughter and towards the whole world,” said Ms Arafat, 49, with her eyes fixed on Palestinian TV reports in her Sliema apartment.

“We have to close this chapter about the most important mystery of the Middle East.”

The tomb of Palestinian leader Mr Arafat was opened in Ramallah yesterday for forensic pathologists to take samples that will be tested for evidence he was poisoned by polonium, which is a radio­active isotope.

Mr Arafat’s medical records show that he died in a French hospital on November 11, 2004, after suffering a stroke resulting from a bleeding disorder. He was 75.

He had taken ill suddenly at his besieged Ramallah compound fewer than three weeks earlier.

It was widely reported in the build-up to yesterday’s exhumation that Ms Arafat had refused to allow an autopsy to take place on her husband in 2004.

“I was never asked (to give permission for an autopsy),” she insisted yesterday.

“His body was not in my possession. It was with the Palestinian Authority and it went to Ramallah and was buried.”

Like many Palestinians, Ms Arafat said she always suspected that her husband had been murdered.

“But it never occurred to me to investigate before Al-Jazeera came and did their own investigation,” she said.

Qatari TV network Al-Jazeera’s nine-month research into Mr Arafat’s death found high levels of polonium on his final personal effects.

Ms Arafat, who provided Al-Jazeera with clothing Mr Arafat wore in his final days, asked a French court last August to open a murder investigation following the probe results.

She said if concrete evidence of poisoning was found she wanted the perpetrator brought to justice, something that critics of the exhumation argued would be very difficult.

The Palestinian leadership said yesterday it would petition the International Criminal Court to investigate if evidence was found.

“There is a difference between having doubts and confirming doubts. If doubts (that Mr Arafat died of natural causes) are confirmed it’s very important to know who did it. But even if we never find out who did it, we would know that he was killed.”

Polonium poisoning would have to be administered through close contact with the victim, but Ms Arafat refused to speculate yesterday on whether someone in her husband’s inner circle may have betrayed him while he was under siege at his West Bank compound.

“I have to leave all these questions to justice. I cannot preclude anything. I hope everything is discovered. If there was a traitor we have to discover this,” she said.

She also refused to point the finger at Israel, which is widely suspected by Palestinians of poisoning their leader.

“I am not accusing anybody. I only want to know the truth. His 1,000-page medical report said that he was clean and clear like a baby. So what made him die? We owe it to him to find out,” said Ms Arafat.

With Gaza recovering from eight days of Israeli airstrikes that killed 161 Palestinians earlier this month, Ms Arafat said the investigation into Mr Arafat’s death was “symbolically important for the martyrs of Gaza”.

“He was very close to the martyrs and their families in life.”

Ms Arafat sobbed quietly for several minutes as she watched Palestinian dignitaries pay tribute to her husband on TV after the samples were taken; her grief interrupted intermittently by phone calls she answered in Arabic and French.

“It’s like a rebirth,” she said eventually. “He has returned today to say hello to his people. I hope it will unite them.

“If he was alive there would not be this split between the West Bank and Gaza.”

Surrounded by photos of Mr Arafat, with a giant painted portrait in one corner of her large living room, Ms Arafat said she decided not to travel to the West Bank for the exhumation because: “I don’t want to take the light from Yasser. It’s not about me”.

“It’s about Yasser Arafat. I don’t want any distractions. Let the judges do their job,” she said.

Having lived abroad for many years in Tunisia, France and Malta, Ms Arafat divides opinion in Palestine.

Will Palestinians thank her for her part in investigating her husband’s death?

“Maybe they are not grateful now. But maybe they will thank me later. It is always like this in politics.”

Results from analysis of Mr Arafat’s remains by French, Russian and Swiss investigation teams are not expected for at least three months.

Israel has denied any involvement in the death and dismissed the probe as irrelevant.

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