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Conspiracy Theories Persist on Arafat's Death

Many Palestinians Still Assert Israel Poisoned Leader

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page A36

JERUSALEM, Nov. 17 -- What, or who, killed Yasser Arafat?

The rapid decline of the 75-year-old Palestinian leader's health, the refusal of his wife and authorities at the French military hospital where he died last Thursday to release his medical records and Israel's threat a year ago to "remove" him have spawned a cottage industry of speculation among Palestinians. Unwilling to accept the official explanation that Arafat died of an illness, many seem to favor the explanation that Israel, with help from a senior Arafat aide, poisoned him, a charge Israelis deny and many others have discounted.

A Palestinian paid tribute to Yasser Arafat last week near a poster adorning the leader's compound in Ramallah. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

The French government, constrained by privacy laws, went as far as it could on Wednesday to quash rumors that Arafat was poisoned, without explicitly denying it.

"If the doctors had had the slightest doubt, they would have referred it to the police. I note that permission was given for him to be buried," a government spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope, told reporters after the weekly French cabinet meeting, according to news accounts. He repeated France's refusal to release Arafat's medical records to anyone but his family, saying, "The public authorities can in no case violate this law, which touches on fundamental freedoms."

Nonetheless, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia on Wednesday ordered an inquiry to determine the cause of Arafat's death. The Associated Press reported that a commission, to be headed by Health Minister Jawad Tibi, will take testimony from Palestinian and other Arab doctors and follow up with medical teams that performed "tests on President Arafat in Ramallah, in order to get the available information about the sickness of President Arafat, and the reasons of his death," a commission statement said.

The suspicion that Arafat was murdered is not being peddled just by a few conspiracy theorists, but by many, including some of Arafat's top aides. His Jordanian doctor has called for an autopsy, citing possible poisoning. Tayeb Abdul Rahim, the secretary general of Palestinian Authority's Office of the President, also raised the possibility of poisoning, saying that Palestinians deserved to know what caused Arafat's death.

"In the Western media, you think this is paranoid conspiracy theories, but here in the Arab world, that is not the case at all," said Hishad Ahmed, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, on the outskirts of Ramallah. "If people found that Yasser Arafat was poisoned, it would be a volcano here -- a big earthquake."

"I strongly believe" Arafat was poisoned, he said, adding "most likely it was done by Israel, but it would have to have been executed by those around Arafat." As evidence, he cited previous assassination attempts by Israel against Palestinian leaders, Israel's threats against Arafat, the demand by Arafat's doctor for an autopsy, his treatment at a military hospital that was not likely to divulge secrets and the "campaign of disruption Palestinian officials engaged in for two weeks" during Arafat's hospitalization.

Adding to the confusion is the lack of information that was released during his treatment. Arafat's wife, Suha, refused to allow Arafat's aides to see him and withheld virtually all information about his condition, which she was allowed to do under French privacy laws.

When Palestinian officials flew to Paris to see Arafat for themselves, his wife complained to al-Jazeera television that there was a huge conspiracy against her husband and that officials were coming to bury him alive.

When the officials arrived, they mended fences with Suha Arafat, and during a news conference afterward, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath gave the most complete account to date of Arafat's health. Doctors, he said, "don't have a full understanding of why his status has deteriorated, which means that we don't really have a full diagnosis. . . . We know what it is not. It is not malignancy or cancer anywhere in his body, and the doctors today ruled out completely poisoning."

But Palestinian officials continue to complain that Arafat's wife is blocking the full release of information about his cause of death, which they say is preventing their people from reaching closure.

"Maybe I don't have the full information about how [Arafat] died and the reason, but I am totally convinced it was an abnormal and unusual cause of death," said Hussein Sheikh, the general secretary of Arafat's Fatah political movement in the West Bank. Arafat "is not the property of Suha. He's the property of the Palestinian people, and it is the right of the Palestinian people to know how their president died."

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