Suha Arafat has always been power-hungry. She was like that when she began working at the age of 26 in Yasser Arafat's Tunisian office in 1989, and so she remained during the few years she spent at the side of the rais.
With her hysterical calls yesterday on Al Jazeera, Suha Arafat was seen settling accounts and taking her vengeance on the people she believes threw her out of her position of political power at Arafat's side, led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). It was Abbas who caused her greatest humiliation when he made his attendance at the 1993 White House ceremonies signing of the Oslo accords conditional on her not attending. She did not go, and she missed many other events that Abu Mazen and other leading Palestinian Authority figures did not want her to attend.
She was born in 1963, making her 34 years younger than Arafat. The daughter of a Christian family, her father was Daoud Tawil, a wealthy banker with business in the West Bank and Jordan. Her mother, Ramonda, comes from the Hawa family of Acre, prominent property owners in the Haifa area. After 1967, Ramonda became politically active in the territories, but the fact that an attractive woman like her was meeting openly with foreign correspondents did not help her reputation in the eyes of traditional Palestinian society. She was arrested several times by the Israelis and became a media star. Her daughter Suha, growing up in Ramallah, came under the influence of the political activity the mother conducted in the 1970s from her PLO-influenced news bureau in East Jerusalem.
When Suha turned 18, she was sent to study in Paris, where she lived with her older sister, who was married to Ibrahim Souss, the PLO's then-ambassador to France. In 1987 and 1988 she met Arafat a number of times, and helped organize his visit to Paris in 1989. Afterward, she went to Tunis to work in his office.
Soon after the gossip began about the two being lovers, and in the summer of 1990 the 61-year-old Arafat and 27-year-old Suha were secretly married. The Christian Suha became a Muslim "for political purposes," as she would say later. Yesterday, many cynically noted that she signed off her statement to Al Jazeera by saying "Allahu Akhbar (God is great)," twice.
The marriage was strange, by all accounts. Suha courted Arafat, initiating the relationship and the marriage itself. Her parents were against it, but Arafat gave in to her. He was lonely at the top after most of his founding father partners in Fatah had been killed, died or retired from the revolution.
Those left behind, headed by Abu Mazen, opposed the idea of him marrying, and conducted a campaign against Suha. For decades, the Palestinian propaganda machine had revolved around the image of the fighting, wandering hero who was homeless and dressed in rags - symbolizing the Palestinians - and now, suddenly, he was married to a young blonde dressed in the latest French style. And if that wasn't all, she was also a Christian, and her world was not merely culture, but cafe society, night clubs, dancing and the beaches of Europe.
The ambitious Suha imposed herself on the PLO leadership. Her family leaked the fact of her secret marriage to the media because they could not stand the jokes and cheap gossip about the leader's mistress. Later, when she was asked about the marriage, she admitted that she pushed him into it. And in a rare joint interview, when he said their marriage was fate, she interjected, "It wasn't fate, it was love."
The rais' lifestyle did not change very much after the marriage. He continued to live most of his life, including nights, at his offices, whether in Gaza or Ramallah, and Suha was forced to surrender to the demands of senior Palestinian officials to stay away from any political activity.
On July 24, 1995, their daughter Zahwa was born, named for Arafat's mother. Suha had the baby in Paris and gradually she began spending more and more time in the French capital, staying away from the territories.
She did not attend Arafat's 70th birthday party in 1999, and the rift between them became public knowledge. There was also a financial background to the crisis in their relationship, since she had become involved in getting economic franchises in the PA for her cronies.
Arafat's financial advisor, Mohammed Rashid, mediated a financial arrangement between Arafat and his wife, which led to a rift between Suha and Rashid. Despite the rumors about millions that she wastes, Suha continued to complain over the years that the money she gets is not enough for her household needs, and on a number of occasions has said that she is worried she would end up penniless after Arafat's death.
It is difficult to believe, however, that Suha's strange behavior around Arafat's deathbed is only a matter of money. More than anything, it can be understood as the woman's revenge on the PA leadership for all the years it scorned her. Apparently the timing of the outburst was directly linked to her learning that Abu Mazen and other Palestinian officials she hated so much were on their way to Paris to once and for all end her proximity to the rais.
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