Ghada Karmi



Ghada Karmi


Yasser Arafat’s serious illness, currently being treated in a Paris hospital where he lies dead or dying, was to be expected sooner or later in view of his long history of ill health. Even so, a question mark hangs over the cause of his condition with persistent rumours circulating amongst Palestinians that his illness is the result of poisoning by Israel. The evidence for this is entirely circumstantial and likely to be no more than fantasy in the current climate of distrust and hostility between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is worth reviewing to remind us that nothing can be ruled out when dealing with Israel. After all, Sharon and his ministers have repeatedly threatened to kill Arafat and have tried poisoning him on three occasions in the past.  Israel has a notorious and longstanding assassination policy of Palestinian leaders, and he history of state espionage is full of bizarre cases of poisoning, the result of chemical weapons research - in which, incidentally, Israel excels. The Financial Times of 6.11.04 reported that Palestinian senior security chiefs had said that poisoning as the cause of Arafat’s illness could not be ruled out, a view later reiterated by the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmad Qurei. There were other unconfirmed reports that the cooks in his compound had been questioned.

The lack of a diagnosis by the French medical team treating President Arafat, even now, is a key factor fuelling this speculation. A few, uninformative medical bulletins about his condition since he went to Paris, are all any of us have had to go on. Why the mystery? My medical colleagues and I have no explanation for this. It would be usual in cases without a firm diagnosis for information regarding symptoms and investigations and a working hypothesis to be provided – to say that Arafat is in a coma, for example, tells us nothing very much. The Jerusalem Post reported on 4.11.04 that Uri Dan, an Israeli journalist and close confidant of Ariel Sharon, stated that the latter had “eliminated” Yasser Arafat “through his cooks”. On 2.11.04, when the president was first reported gravely ill, Israeli intelligence sources announced that he had days or at most weeks to live, which could have meant that the Israelis were eager for Arafat to die. With hindsight now people are asking, did they know something that no one else did? In the last few days, sources on the internet have reported that the French doctors treating him sent samples of his blood for poisons testing. Al Quds al Arabi of 8.11.04 also reported the same thing, citing US laboratories as the destination for the samples. At the same time, the Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, announced his belief that Israel had poisoned President Arafat.

            No wonder then that Palestinians fears their leader to have become the latest Israeli assassination victim. If so, its worst aspect would be that he might have been denied the antidote to whatever poison was used on him and his life consequently saved. In the case of Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader Israel tried to poison in Amman in 1997, Jordan forced it to provide the antidote that saved his life. Medically speaking, we know that a doctor would have to first suspect a case of poisoning before testing for it and then administering the required antidote. It is not a diagnosis that is immediately apparent and, if the French doctors never thought of it, or realised it too late, then they would not test for it in time and then indeed the patient’s condition, like Arafat’s, would seem mysterious and without remedy. The historical precedent that comes to mind is that of Napoleon when the British had him imp rosined him on the island of St Helena. He too died mysteriously, of a “stomach ailment”, it was alleged at the time, but was later suspected to have been poisoned by his British captors because he had become an encumbrance. Both Ariel Sharon and George Bush are alleged to have warned Arafat that he would have to accept the Gaza disengage plan by the end of October or else, “he was finished”. Arafat had refused to disappear physically or politically and, as a national, unifying leader had also become an obstacle in the way of Sharon’s plans for Palestine.

            If Sharon did kill Yasser Arafat, either by poisoning or by holding him in unhealthy, unhygienic conditions, then he would have been no more than the instrument of murder. The real murderers have been the rest of us: those who neglected him and who joined in his denigration; the opportunists and pretenders to Palestine’s leadership, impatient to take his place; those who wilfully forgot or never understood his unique contribution to the national struggle; the fickle who deserted him as soon as they smelled defeat; those who want to suck up to America and have bought its agenda for the Palestinians; and all those who stood by and watched his humiliation and did nothing. Ever since Israel instigated its ferocious campaign of demonisation, seeking to make Arafat simultaneously irrelevant and also responsible for Palestinian “terrorism” and the failure of the peace process, his constant denigration has had an effect, and not just in the West. His humiliating imprisonment in a bombed-out Ramallah compound, which no other democratically elected leader would have been subjected and which should have generated constant demands for his release, has become acceptable, and his colleagues acquiesced without protest in having him set aside in favour of an unelected Palestinian “prime minister” drawn from their ranks.

The fiction that he is the real obstacle to peace and so-called Palestinian reform is insidiously influential in some Palestinian circles, who now focus everyone’s attention on the internal Palestinian situation, rather than the pernicious effects of military occupation - exactly in line with Israeli/Western expectations. Nowhere in history has an occupied people been required to “reform” itself while the occupation continues. Now that Arafat’s exit from the field of battle is imminent, there is talk of a new opportunity for peace, as if he had been the problem all along. In short, Arafat-bashing has become a fashion – not just in the West, where it was a traditional sport, but also amongst Arabs and Palestinians. Arab rulers no longer feel obliged to extend the usual diplomatic courtesies to the Palestinian leader. A growing number of Palestinian critics hold him responsible for a list of errors and failings, both his and everyone else’s. He has become a whipping boy for all those with a grievance, no matter what its cause, and for all the inadequates and the second-raters, who find relief in blaming him for their own failures. If he goes, they will miss him more than those who loved him.

It is not that Yasser Arafat has no faults or that they should be overlooked. A people should be critical of its leadership and demand reform when it is necessary. But such considerations amongst Palestinians should not be allowed to overshadow either Israel’s deadly, subversive role in this or rob Arafat of his unique importance and rightful place in Palestinian history. His supreme achievement was to put the Palestinian cause on the world stage when it had been relegated to the dustbin of history. He achieved the nearly impossible: to bring together a dispersed and fragmented people, 60 per cent of them in exile, and imbue them with a sense of belonging in the absence of a homeland. His loss would be irreparable. The international community knows this well, as the storm of diplomatic and media interest worldwide showed last week when news of his illness broke ands ever since. It is difficult to imagine that a sick Ariel Sharon (or any other Israeli) would command such attention Clearly, Arafat remains pivotal to the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite Israel’s best efforts to make him politically irrelevant. To Palestinians like me, he is an enduring symbol of our struggle and the father of our nation. For forty years, he has been our leader, the only one many of us have ever known. Unique amongst Arab leaders, he has no personal life, despite his marriage and fatherhood, no home and no hobbies. Palestine is his sole, overriding preoccupation. In today’s desperate Palestinian situation of harsh military occupation, dwindling territory and fragmentation, he symbolises the unity of the Palestine cause and the negation of a Palestinian dissolution Israel so vigorously pursues. Ironically enough, Sharon understands this better than many of the new wave, modern-style Palestinians who have renounced Arafat and would like to “move on”, and hence Sharon’s need to demolish Arafat, not as a man, but as that symbol of Palestinian peoplehood.

The process started with the Oslo Agreement, when Arafat and the PLO leadership moved from Tunis to the “inside” in 1994. The exiled Palestinian majority and the refugees were left orphaned, without effective leadership, from which they have never recovered. This damaging division fulfilled an old Israeli ambition: to shrink the Palestinian problem down from national to local level and offload Israel’s responsibility for it. With luck, Israel hoped, Arafat would become a village mukhtar, fobbed off with the trappings of state but no proper territory, and the right of return could be buried forever. The trick of Palestinian statehood worked up to a point and the Palestinians under occupation really believe they have a state in the making. To have taken this to the lengths of having a parliament and ministers, a flag and a passport, while still under occupation, was in my view a mistake. It made the Palestinian Authority the perfect scapegoat for Israel’s accusations of Palestinian “terrorism” and created the pernicious idea in the West that there was real equivalence between the Authority and Israel in terms of power and responsibility. However that may be, the Palestinians fell into the Israeli trap of statehood without a state, with Arafat at its head. It was when he refused to surrender the right to Jerusalem and the right of return that Israel decided he was the “obstacle to peace” and must be replaced with a Palestinian leader more pliant to its wishes.

            Perhaps Arafat should have surrendered the reins of power to a younger leader and retired in dignity. Perhaps he should have done many other things differently. But this is not the time to rehearse his faults and shortcomings. Nor should Palestinians appear to be any part of the Israeli-inspired campaign of disdain and denigration of their leader that cannot respect a man even when he’s on his deathbed. Israel’s attempt to have him buried in Gaza, where no one can visit him because Jerusalem, in the words of the racist Israeli minister Yosef Lapid, is “the burial place of Jewish kings, not Arab terrorists”, must be strongly resisted. This is a time for Palestinians to grieve for the demise of a man who deserved a more fitting end, not as now, outside his native soil, his life’s work unfinished, derided and deposed. Rather than quarrel over his successor before he has even died, it is a time for all of us to pay homage to one of the last of the great world leaders, a life-long patriot who never stopped the struggle for our cause and who gave us status and a stake in the world and in our own future.



Ghada Karmi is a London-based Palestinian physician, academic and political commentator.