x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Suha Arafat opens Pandora's Box for Palestinians

Suha Arafat's role in the life and career of her husband comes under the microscope once again, as Yasser Arafat's body is exhumed.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for the National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for the National

She's the stylish widow of the most iconic leader in Palestinian history; a woman who today finds herself at the centre of one of the most intriguing and potentially explosive controversies the Arab world has ever encountered.

Suha Arafat, the 49-year-old wife of the late Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, Yasser Arafat, this week tearfully looked on from her Malta home as her husband of 14 years was exhumed from his burial place at the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters in Ramallah. His body will be tested under suspicion that the former PLO leader was poisoned with a radioactive substance.

This extraordinary move was instigated by Suha herself after she requested that French authorities launch a murder investigation into the death of her husband, who was buried in November 2004 amid chaotic scenes. The request was prompted by an Al Jazeera report in July that claimed a laboratory in Switzerland had detected the presence of polonium-210, a deadly radioactive substance, on some of Arafat's personal effects. These belongings also include his kaffiyeh, which became the Palestinian leader's most identifiable trademark in a decades-long career that made him an international celebrity and saw him both loved and loathed in equal measure.

Suha, a French citizen, believes that serious foul play was behind his death at the age of 75. She hopes that, like the polonium-210-linked death in London of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, her husband's exhumation will prove something of a similar nature. In July, she told Al Jazeera, to whom she had provided Arafat's effects for the Qatari TV station to hand over to Swiss scientists, that going through his old belongings and reliving the past was "very, very painful. You can't imagine. And the most painful thing is that my daughter knew about it, because she had to give us DNA, and I had to give my DNA. It was very painful … to go into all the memories".

But Suha, far from being an equally loved figure to that of her husband, is a controversial woman both within PA circles and the Palestinian public. Asked by Al Jazeera in July why she wanted her husband's body to go through the great rigours of exhumation - its practical concerns were matched by other more cultural sensitivities - she responded by saying that she was "doing it as a wife, as a mother, as a partner of this great man, for the Palestinian generation, for the Palestinian children and for the whole world to know the truth about the assassination of Yasser Arafat".

Suha's feelings are shared by many Palestinians who believe the PLO leader was the victim of an assassination plot, perhaps by his greatest enemy, Israel, and the Jewish state's shadowy intelligence organisation, Mossad, in particular. But her sincere-sounding proclamations are unlikely to endear her to the PA, which has old animosities with a woman they regard as being more lavishly French than truly Palestinian; and a Palestinian public, who watched as their leader was besieged by Israeli tanks in his Ramallah compound for two-and-a-half years while Suha whiled away her days in the more salubrious surroundings of the Tunisian capital of Tunis.

Born Suha Al Tawil in Jerusalem in the early 1960s to a wealthy Christian family living in the West Bank, she was the daughter of an Oxford-educated banker father, Daoud, and a high-profile nationalist poet, journalist and political activist mother, Reemonda. Her mother frequently ran into trouble with the Israeli authorities and once helmed Jerusalem's Palestine Press Service. Raised a Catholic in Ramallah and Nablus, she attended the Rosary Sisters' School in Jerusalem from where she left to read politics at the Sorbonne in Paris. It is said her politically active mother, who already knew Arafat, used those connections to obtain a scholarship. There, she lived with her sister, who was married to the PLO's ambassador to France.

After meeting Arafat when she was in her mid-20s on an assignment in Jordan for a French publication, Suha moved to Tunis to work for him with the PLO in exile. Suha converted to Islam and married the colourful political campaigner in Tunisia in secret in 1990 when she was in her late 20s and he in his early 60s. This unlikely marriage - which only came out in 1992 - came as a complete surprise to many Palestinians. Fair-skinned Suha was a Muslim-convert, many years Arafat's junior and of a privileged background. Arafat had had a number of affairs and had even been close to marriage a couple of times, but had always maintained that he was married to the Palestinian cause, as its official representative at home and abroad.

In July 1995, Suha gave birth to a girl and named her Zahwa, in honour of Arafat's late mother who died in 1933. But, even this joyous event failed to endear her to the Palestinian masses, as Suha, proudly showing off the Palestinian leader's new - and only - child at a hospital in Paris, somewhat insensitively declared: "Our child was conceived in Gaza, but sanitary conditions there are terrible. I don't want to be a hero and risk my baby."

Both Suha and her husband lived separate lives in their modest two-storey house in Gaza City where they were said to have had separate living quarters. Despite her conversion to Islam, some reports suggest Suha's apartment was decorated with images of Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II as well as a young gun-carrying Arafat. But by 2000, the mother-of-one decided to leave for the more calming confines of Paris to live with her mother. Seemingly, this was so Zahwa could receive treatment for leukaemia, although the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 also seems to have played a role in her decision to leave. Nevertheless, this move also drew an angry response from her many critics, who accused her of abandoning the hardships of home for a way of life that only she, as the wealthy wife of a political leader, could truly realise.

In the remaining years leading up to Arafat's death in 2004, Suha courted more controversy with some less-than-guarded comments. In 2002, just before her husband condemned "all terrorist acts which target civilians", Suha appeared to endorse suicide attacks, stating that if she had a son, there would be "no greater honour" than to see him sacrifice his life for the Palestinian cause. Three years earlier she had already drawn criticism from Hillary Clinton when, during a meeting with the then-US First Lady, she accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian air and water.

When Suha's husband became ill in Ramallah - reportedly on October 12, 2004 - his deterioration was rapid, leaving him weak and painfully thin. He was shown being taken out of the West Bank in a tracksuit and a wool hat, and died only a month later on November 11 in a military hospital near Paris from what French authorities determined as a stroke brought on by a serious blood disorder. Even then, his death seemed suspicious - unnaturally hasty - leading to speculation that his demise was AIDS-related. This was quickly discounted but another more sinister cause - poisoning - has proved to be much more long-lasting.

A newly-widowed Suha, who said it had "never occurred" to her to conduct a post-mortem at the time of her husband's death, moved to Tunisia where she was soon granted citizenship. But, following a major rift with the wife of the then-Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she was forced to abandon the country and her citizenship was rescinded. Yet, her stay in Tunisia came with more costs, with the country's authorities issuing an international arrest warrant for Suha in connection with alleged financial corruption with the family of the deposed leader.

Suha now lives in Malta with her mother, where she says she receives a monthly pay settlement from the PA. Her teenage daughter, now 17, attends a boarding school in France. It was at her Maltese home, around half-an-hour's car journey from the country's capital Valletta, that she watched reports of the exhumation from her TV scree. She insisted in an interview with the Times of Malta that she had stayed away from the actual event because she didn't "want to be in the limelight" and wanted the focus of Tuesday's proceedings to remain on her husband.

The forensic samples collected by French, Swiss and Russian investigators will now be sent abroad for analysis, but their results will not be known for some months. The irrepressible widow of the man otherwise known as Abu Ammar, who, in the aftermath of the exhumation, spoke in the same interview of her wish "to close this chapter of this mystery", may yet find that she has opened up another altogether more volatile one instead.