Last week, a new Swiss forensics report was released that reveals findings that “moderately support” the theory that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was poisoned to death in 2004. The investigation reveals that Arafat’s remains contained over 18 times the normal levels of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance 250,000 times as toxic as cyanide. However, given the amount of time elapsed since Arafat’s death, as well as some uncertainty surrounding the chain of custody of the samples that were tested, Swiss scientists say they cannot conclude definitively that Arafat was poisoned by the rare isotope.
The report—released just before the ninth anniversary of Arafat’s death on November 11—resulted in a rhetorical spike in the Holy Land last week. Palestinian officials pointed fingers unequivocally at Israel, calling Arafat’s death “an assassination” and calling for a reenergized investigation, despite suspicions of Palestinian Authority involvement in his demise. Israeli officials attacked the science surrounding the report and dismissed the investigation as a “soap opera.” Meanwhile, pundits and politicians on all sides speculated on the implications of these findings on the already-weakened peace process.
Yet, for those close to Arafat, as well as for many Palestinians, the truth surrounding his death represents a step towards justice and closure.
“We very much care and deserve to know the truth about what happened to someone who was not only a national leader, but more importantly, a human being,” says Palestinian business leader and philanthropist, Munib Masri, a longtime friend and close confidant of Arafat’s. Masri is one of the wealthiest Palestinians in the world—he is the Chairman of the Palestinian Development and Investment Company (Padico), which reportedly accounts for around a quarter of the entire Palestinian economy. His business success has positioned him as a key player in the international community and in negotiations both with Israel and between rival Palestinian factions. He has often loudly criticized Israel's actions in Gaza and the West Bank, and while some investments have been scrutinized by some Palestinian factions, notably the popular Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement, Masri says, "I respect BDS and always encourage people to abide by them. This is a Palestinian national issue that we respect and agree on."
Masri first met Arafat in 1963, and says he initially was skeptical of the then-leader of the Fatah Movement. “I said to myself, ‘Who is this Palestinian ‘leader’ with an Egyptian accent?’” he says warmly, reflecting on his first interactions with “Abu Amar,” a nickname for Arafat. But within a year, Masri was accompanying Arafat to meet the newly established Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) heads in North Africa.
At the time, the PLO rejected Arafat, saying, according to Masri, “We don’t give money to gangsters.” Arafat heatedly responded: “In 10 years, you’ll see me representing Palestine to the world.” Sure enough, by 1974, Arafat would address the United Nations as the head of the PLO, proclaiming, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Three years prior, in 1971, as a minister in Jordan, Masri had helped smuggle Arafat and his Fatah fighters out of Jordan following the Black September massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees. “I’m trying to get him to the border, and he says to me, ‘When I come back to Jordan, I will return as a statesman, not a fugitive.’ I was saying, ‘Let’s just get you out safely!” Masri recalled.
In 1980, Arafat returned to Jordan for the funeral of Jordanian Prime Minister Abdelhamid Sharaf. Upon arriving at the airport, Masri found the Jordanian foreign minister and other Jordanian government representatives awaiting Arafat’s arrival. “Then, maybe five minutes before his plane landed, King Hussein arrived at the airport. When I saw [Arafat], I said, ‘Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so!’”
Some of Masri’s fondest memories of Arafat hail from their time together in the 1980s in Tunis. “I disagreed with him many times; he made many, many mistakes,” Masri says. “We took many walks, but one day I remember most, we were arguing and he said, ‘I know I’ve made mistakes in Jordan, I’ve made mistakes in Lebanon, in Tunis, but we’re not making any more mistakes. Now we are going home.’”
In 1988, Arafat agreed to PLO recognition of Israel, which opened the door to the 1991 Madrid Conference (in which the PLO was removed from a U.S.-classified terrorist organization) and entered the secret negotiations of the Oslo Accords. In 1993, he famously shook hands with Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, D.C. “And then we went home,” Masri says. He accompanied Arafat from Cairo back to the Palestinian territories the first time since Arafat’s exile from Gaza 27 years earlier.
“This is why he meant so much to me, as a friend, as a leader—why I saw him as a superhero, as larger than life,” Masri reflects. “He imagined Palestine as something many of us could have never dreamed of. He had a vision that I couldn’t see at so many different points in time, and he took us from so far [as refugees] to something that is so close to home.”
Yet, in his lifetime, Arafat was a lightning rod for controversy—not only among Israelis and the international community, but also among Palestinians and Arab allies. Even Arafat’s widow, Suha, acknowledged that Arafat “had a lot of enemies all over the world” and most recently told the BBC, “I can’t accuse anybody. Everybody wants to accuse Israel—I can’t accuse. I can’t jump into conclusion.”
In fact, the theory of Arafat’s death-by-poison brings into question the possibility of a role played by his inner circle in administering the radioactive polonium. His death was in the midst of the Second Intifada, and, at the time, Arafat had been under siege in his Ramallah compound by the Israelis during their heightened crackdown on the Palestinian territories in response to previous Palestinian suicide bombing campaigns.
Matt Rees, author of The Murder of Yasser Arafat, argues that the real question is not who administered the poison (his book claims that only Arafat’s inner circle had the access to administer such poison, based on early reporting on the first investigations into Arafat’s death that were quickly shut down by the Palestinian Authority). Rees claims that the real question is who supplied the poison to Arafat’s inner circle—the Israelis, the Russians (who used the substance to poison Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko), or another enemy of Arafat’s.
“The Second Intifada was taking its toll, and his close circle realized [Arafat] didn’t have an end game; he was just going to take the Palestinian people and the PLO leadership down with him,” says Rees. “They decided they needed to eliminate him [Arafat], end the Intifada, and return to the stability of the PA… And keep the [international aid] money coming.”
On Friday at a Ramallah press conference, Palestinian officials stated “Israel is the prime and only suspect in the case of Yasser Arafat’s assassination” and refused to make public any information on how the poison could have been administered given Arafat’s heightened security state at the time.
“I totally reject this,” said Masri, referring to allegations of Palestinian involvement in Arafat’s death. “We loved him and no one would have done this to him, but more importantly, we do not have any evidence of this. What we do know is that 1) Israel has Polonium, 2) that they had always wanted to kill him and 3) that the assassination of Palestinian leaders by Israel is not uncommon or unusual. That is what we do have evidence for, not the stories about Palestinian betrayal.”
Yet, even for those Palestinians who were not fans Arafat or who were too young to remember the height of the PLO’s struggles, getting to the bottom of Arafat’s death remains a priority.
“Maybe it’s a bit generational, but I’d say Palestinians my age all know that Arafat and his men were corrupt. They stole a lot of money from our people, and they have Israeli blood and some Palestinian blood on their hands,” says a 23-year-old Gazan student, Nadia, who planned to participate in this year’s November 11th protests—not in celebration of Arafat, but in resistance to Hamas rule in Gaza.
“That said, Arafat lived a lot of the Palestinian experience, and a big part of that experience is injustice from the Israelis, followed by no accountability. It’s like we never count as humans, that crimes against us don’t count,” says Nadia. “So to the Israelis or anyone who says we need to put [Arafat’s death] behind us, no. We deserve answers about any crimes committed against Palestinians, just like any other people in the world. I’m not saying Abu Mazen [chair of the PLO and president of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas] will give us a fair investigation, but I support an international investigation into his murder. We have the right to know what happened and take action from there.”
For Masri, one of his last memories of Arafat was as the leader left Ramallah by helicopter, heading to Europe for medical treatment for his mysteriously declining health. “He kissed my hand and said, ‘Stay with me, Munib.’ He was in very horrible condition, and I fainted onto the tarmac and had a head injury that resulted in a concussion. He called us as soon as he landed in Amman on his way to Paris to see if I was okay.”
“Even when he was so sick, he was such a loyal friend,” says Masri. “That is how I remember him.”