Arafat's widow has unclear motives
RAMALLAH // Suha Arafat is nothing if not unpredictable.
After her husband, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, died in 2004 in a Paris military hospital, she refused to allow outside examination of his medical records or permit an autopsy. Her refusal compounded the mystery surrounding Arafat's death and fuelled rumours of stonewalling, Israeli plots and cover-ups.
More than eight years later and for reasons that are still unclear, Mrs Arafat did an about-face. In cooperation with the satellite network Al Jazeera, she allowed Swiss researchers earlier this year to examine her late husband's medical records and the clothing he was wearing shortly before he was hospitalised for the final time.
The researchers found elevated levels of the radioactive substance polonium-210, reinforcing long-held suspicions that he had been poisoned. Mrs Arafat then urged the exhumation of Arafat's remains, which Palestinian officials reluctantly agreed to.
The former Palestinian first lady's persistence culminated on Tuesday when French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry into Arafat's death.
While Palestinian authorities have publicly welcomed the probe, Mrs Arafat's turnaround has left many officials in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA) scratching their heads and wondering about her motives. "Suha never contacted us about this Al Jazeera investigation," said one Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She's done literally nothing for the Palestinian cause, and now she suddenly pursues this sensational media investigation?"
Arafat's surviving colleagues have reason to be wary, even bitter, about his widow's behaviour. While the gravely ill Arafat lay dying in a Paris military hospital in November 2004, the 48-year-old Mrs Arafat, using her husband's nom de guerre, accused his top Palestinian aides during a television interview of "trying to bury Abu Ammar alive".
She also barred her husband's confidants from visiting him in the hospital, with one exception: she permitted then Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to come to the ailing Palestinian leader's bedside after he begged her, according to one Palestinian official.
Under French law, the next-of-kin have the authority to control decisions about a medical patient's medical care and disclosure of related information. Mrs Arafat's decision to forbid a post-mortem only fuelled rumours that Arafat had died of causes ranging from food poisoning to Aids.
Several Palestinian officials interviewed for this story believed Mrs Arafat's renewed interest in her husband's demise may be a ploy to squeeze more cash from the PA, which already pays her an undisclosed monthly stipend. She knows potentially damaging details about the inner workings of the Palestinian leadership, one official said.
For their part, long-time colleagues of the late president resent Mrs Arafat because, they said, she was a main beneficiary of the large trove of funds over which her husband had uncontested control and distributed to a vast patronage network.
Allegations of corruption have long dogged Suha Arafat. French officials opened a money-laundering inquiry against her in 2004, and last year Tunisian authorities issued an arrest warrant for her in relation to a corruption probe involving Leila Ben Ali, wife of the ousted Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Mrs Arafat's Tunisian citizenship was revoked in 2007 following a rumoured falling-out between the two former first ladies. Her lawyers at the Paris-based firm Fischer, Tandeau De Marsac and Partners, insist, however, her renewed interest in Arafat's death is motivated by suspicions he had been poisoned.
The decision to press for an investigation by French authorities stemmed from worries that an inquiry in Israel and the Palestinian territories would be "too politically charged", said Jessica Finelle, one of the lawyers.
Indeed, sensitivities about the circumstances behind Arafat's death run high in Ramallah.
It took physicians 15 days after he fell ill to prescribe antibiotics for him, according to some medical records later leaked to reporters. That generated suspicions of negligence by his closest Palestinian associates.
That leads to suggestions that the key question may not revolve around what Suha Arafat wants but what she knows.
What is certain is that Palestinians never warmly embraced her.
Unlike her gregarious, lionised and feared husband, Mrs Arafat, who moved to Malta after leaving Tunisia in 2007, usually avoided the limelight as first lady and was prone to gaffes when she sought it.
A blonde, Sorbonne-educated Palestinian Christian, she was mostly an enigma to Palestinians, preferring shopping sprees in Europe to the couple's home in Gaza City.
When she lived in Gaza, Mrs Arafat drove through its streets in a blue BMW. When it came time to give birth to the couple's daughter, Zahwa, she went to France, leaving her husband behind and moving abroad permanently after the second intifada broke out in 2000.
Her refusal to melt into her husband's shadow made it hard for many Palestinians to embrace her as their first lady.
"She's not perceived as being part of the Palestinian struggle," said Nadia Najjab, professor of cultural studies at Birzeit University.
Some question whether her marriage was less about love than political expediency.
The Palestinian leader was 61 and she was 27 when they married in 1990. She was introduced to Arafat by her mother, Raymonda Hawa Tawil, a politically prominent Palestinian journalist.
Other Palestinian officials said, however, the pair were smitten with each other. Whatever the case, the marriage "brought an end to the Israelis' foolish pursuit of rumours regarding Arafat's homosexuality", notes Palestinian journalist Said Aburish in his critical 1998 biography of Arafat.
The difficulty for Suha Arafat is that she may have climbed too high, too fast, observed one Palestinian official.
Prone to impulsive behaviour, she has been drawn again to the limelight, this time over the controversy surrounding her husband's death.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Al Jazeera found a way to convince her to take part," the official said, adding that it was "always clear Suha had been in way over her head" when she became Arafat's first lady.
"She's a simple person," the official added.
Updated: August 30, 2012 04:00 AM