The final days of Yasser Arafat
The blonde takes command
Suha Arafat had not seen her husband in the four years preceding his death. She lived in a luxury apartment in Paris with her daughter, Zahwa, and got along on a monthly allowance of $50,000, which she received from Arafat's office. According to one of Arafat's confidants, the chairman gave her everything she asked for during her residence in Paris, for fear she would leak intimate details about their relationship.
During this period Suha was in direct contact with Khoury, the bureau chief, and with the economic adviser, Mohammed Rashid. In Paris she was accompanied by bodyguards wherever she went. She was often seen in the company of a Lebanese-Christian businessman, Pierre Rizk, who maintained ramified ties with economic firms connected with the PA and the PLO. The nature of Suha Arafat's relations with Rizk is not clear, despite rumors that he was her lover.
"When Suha entered the Rais's small room, with its one bed, he recognized her immediately and called her 'my darling' and 'my dear,'" a person who was present at the meeting recalls. "Suha kissed him on the cheek and he returned the kiss. From that moment she took total command of events. After she was briefed about the state of his health, she persuaded the Rais that he needed treatment abroad. Suha resolved the dilemma of the destination of the journey, announcing that she and her husband had decided that the treatment would take place in a hospital in Paris, the city where she resided."
Urgent consultations began with France and with Israel, which was asked to allow Arafat to go abroad and to return. Abu Ala contacted the U.S. consul general to request that the United States ensure that "the Israelis will not interfere." Finally, he spoke directly to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who agreed to let Arafat undergo tests in the Ramallah hospital. It was not clear to the Palestinians whether the go-ahead also included the possibility of going abroad. MK Ahmed Tibi spoke to Sharon's adviser Dov Weissglas, who gave him an official Israeli promise that Arafat would be able to go to France and return from there to Ramallah. Sharon even suggested sending a team of Israeli physicians to assist with the tests.
After all the authorizations were obtained, Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Yasser Abed Rabo entered Arafat's room. "You must undergo treatment abroad so that it will be possible to help you," Abu Mazen told him. According to someone who was present, "Arafat managed to sit up and even ate a little. He was in good spirits and enjoyed hearing from us who had called and who had asked how he was doing."
Next to enter were Mohammed Dahlan and Rashid. "You are ill and you must make the trip. Don't be concerned about the question of returning," Dahlan said to Arafat. Arafat replied, "All right, I will go, but you and Rashid will come with me. We will be there two days and return." One of those present asked the Rais, ironically, whether he wanted Dahlan by his side because he was afraid he would make trouble for him back home while he was away. Arafat laughed and said that he "loves Abu Fadi [Dahlan.]"
In the adjacent conference room, a charged discussion began about who would assume Arafat's responsibilities while he was away. Ten senior figures in the PA and the PLO decided that Abu Mazen, the secretary general of the PLO, would also be the organization's acting chairman; Abu Ala would continue as prime minister and would assume the powers in foreign affairs and security affairs which were vested in him by law but which Arafat had taken from him. At the end of the discussion a press communique was issued stating that the PLO Executive Committee wished Abu Amar health and a speedy recovery and that Arafat would be going abroad for medical treatment. The names of those who would assume his duties were also published.
In the middle of a later meeting, held by the expanded Palestinian leadership, Suha Arafat entered the room, even though many of the participants did not understand why she was taking part in a meeting of the leadership. She took control of the meeting and declared that she would be leaving with her husband for Paris in the morning. A senior Fatah figure suggested that Abu Ala conduct the contacts with the French, but Suha Arafat rejected this outright, almost shouting.
"I am his wife, I am responsible for him," she said. "I have coordinated everything with the French and there is no need for any other intervention." Shortly afterward Suha's mother, Raymonda Tawil, entered the room, too. "Everyone knew that they had not seen each other for a long time," a member of the leadership says. "We expected a dramatic reunion, but were astonished to see that Suha did not even get up to greet her mother. Raymonda bent down to her and embraced and kissed her. 'My dear Suha,' she said. But the daughter offered only a kiss and a cold hello: 'Ahlan, ya mama.'"
Don't be afraid, I will be back Arafat himself slept almost the whole of his last night in Ramallah. On Friday at 3 A.M., the PA secretary, Taeb Abed a-Rahim, and Jibril Rajoub entered his room. Arafat sat on the edge of his bed. He held the hands of the secretary and kissed them, and then turned to those in the room and made what some of them took as his last wish: "You must see to it that my daughter Zahwa marries a respectable man." That was Arafat's only testament. He said nothing about his successor or about an acting chairman.
Early in the morning two Jordanian Super Frelon helicopters landed in the Muqata plaza, one of them equipped with sophisticated medical instruments. At Arafat's request, he was joined on the journey to Paris by Dahlan, Rashid, Nabil Abu Rudeina (the PA spokesman), Khoury, Suha, one of the Jordanian physicians and a team of bodyguards. Rashid carried a suitcase containing $500,000 in cash, to cover the needs of the entourage in Paris.
"The Rais asked me to go to the plaza and welcome the pilots," one of his confidants says. "I did so, and when I returned I told him we could go ahead to the helicopter. Arafat was confused and asked, 'What helicopter?' I explained that this was the helicopter in which we would fly to Amman and from there we would go on to the hospital in Paris. The Rais replied, 'Why a hospital and why Paris?' He was too dazed to understand what was going on around him."
A short time later Arafat emerged from the Muqata building, walking on his own but leaning on his aides and bodyguards. It was the first time he had left the besieged compound in two years. As he boarded the helicopter, he noticed Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, wiping away a tear. Arafat, who was waving his hands in greeting in all directions, turned to Erekat and told him in Arabic, in an Egyptian dialect, "Don't worry, I'll be back." The helicopters took off for Amman, leaving in their wake clouds of dust and senior Palestinian figures, some of them crying and some not so much, and, almost as usual, Dr. al-Kurdi, the personal physician, who was again forgotten.
Percy military hospital is known as one of the finest centers in Europe for the treatment of blood diseases. However, because it is a military hospital, the administration requested that the presence of those accompanying the patient be kept to a minimum and require the approval of a member of a first-degree relative, in this case Suha Arafat. This procedure served Suha's interests: she kept three of Arafat's confidants - Dahlan, Abu Rudeina and Rashid - from having any contact with the chairman.
The three were compelled to lodge in a distant hotel, the InterContinental. "She simply abused them," says a member of the entourage. "They were forced to give in to the dictates of a woman who was not by his side in the four most difficult years of his life. The three men remained at the hotel, dying of boredom, and spoke by phone with journalists, pretending to be updated. Rashid was there as a walking treasury. Whoever needed money for food or clothes asked him and he would pull out bills from the suitcase and hand them out."
The patient is in a coma The medical report of the team that treated Arafat at Percy Hospital is one of the PA's most closely guarded documents. One copy was given to the widow, Suha Arafat. A handful of copies were made available to several senior PA figures. In the course of hundreds of pages, the physicians document every test the chairman underwent in France and every suspicion that was examined, and they recapitulate his medical history. The various papers are contained in two thick folders. The findings, which are here being published for the first time, tell the story of the two weeks in which Arafat lay dying in Paris, but refrain from offering an explanation for his death, beyond the fact that it was due to massive intracranial bleeding, causing the brain to sink to the base of the skull (herniation).
"From a discussion that took place among a large number of medical experts from a range of specialties, and in terms of all the results of the tests that were administered, it is not possible to determine a cause that will explain the combination of symptoms that caused the death of the patient [Arafat]," wrote Prof. B. Pats in the report of the hospital's intensive care unit.
In the first three days of Arafat's hospitalization, the entourage was still optimistic. The Rais showed signs of recovery. The stomach pains lessened, there were no signs of a tumor, the clotting disorders stabilized and Arafat started to eat again (for the first two days he was fed intravenously).
"There was an improvement in the state of shock and confusion. The patient engaged in minor activity, such as walking in the room, and communicated with those around him," the medical report states. A serious deterioration occurred on the fifth night of the hospitalization. The production of blood platelets again fell sharply.
"The patient again became drowsy, tired and confused. The next day a further decline was diagnosed and there was no reaction to the surroundings. A neurological examination showed that Arafat had fallen into a coma and was responding only to physical stimuli such as punctures. The left side of his body suffered from paralysis and an examination of the brains' electrical activity showed a considerable slowdown."
Physicians in the hematological ward, where Arafat was hospitalized until being moved to intensive care, wrote, "The 75-year-old patient lapsed into a coma as a result of infection, clotting problems or both alike. He was hospitalized because of an intestinal disease that resembles an inflammation of the large intestine combined with clotting problems, though without infection (which causes clotting) being identified during the transfer to the intensive care unit. Evidence of hemophagocytosis [a situation, sometimes seen in AIDS patients, in which cells of the immune system swallow red blood cells] was found. The deterioration in the state of consciousness, which has its source in the brain, developed into a coma which compelled the patient's transfer to the intensive care unit [ICU] on the sixth day of hospitalization."
In ICU, Arafat was injected with large doses of medicines. The medical team decided to maintain the comatose state so that his body would be able to cope with the distress it was encountering. However, nothing helped. Arafat's confidants were told that he was in a state of "reversible coma." As the hours passed, Arafat sank into a deeper coma. This time, it would not be reversible.
Despite being cut off from the hospital, Mohammed Dahlan continued to receive reports from French intelligence about the chairman's condition. On November 3, an intelligence officer called him to report that Arafat's situation was critical and "it is a matter of hours." Dahlan decided to act. He went to the hospital and met with Suha, but again she refused to let him visit his leader and rejected his proposal to summon Abu Ala and Abu Mazen to Paris.
Dahlan left for Ramallah, to update Abu Mazen, the successor-designate. In the meantime, French President Jacques Chirac arrived at the hospital and saw Arafat through the glass window of the ICU room. Chirac, who had heard about the anger generated by Suha's refusal to allow the PA leaders to see Arafat before his death, asked her to agree to a visit.
"True, he is your husband, but he is also a public figure," he told her. Deeply agitated, Suha did not hesitate to fire back at her host, "If you allow the senior figures to visit, I will sue you in court. Do not intervene."
In Ramallah, Dahlan met privately with Abu Mazen. He recommended that he leave immediately for Paris, despite Suha Arafat's opposition. Abu Mazen and Abu Ala hesitated. They were afraid that if they arrived at the hospital in Paris and were ejected, the story would find its way into the media and they might even be accused of trying to depose Arafat. Dahlan spoke to Suha again, this time from Abu Mazen's house, in the presence of senior PA officials: "We respect you and will help you," he promised her. But Suha would not budge. "I will not let anyone in to see him," she stated.
Finally, the PA secretary, Taeb Abed a-Rahim, warned the leaders that "the Palestinian Authority is liable to fall if a delegation does not leave for Paris immediately." The participants at the meeting agreed, and a short time later Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and Ruhi Fatouh, the Speaker of the Palestinian parliament, left for France.
Learning that the senior Palestinian delegation was on its way, Suha lost her head. Her lawyers sent a letter to the hospital administration threatening a lawsuit if the Palestinians were allowed to visit her husband. On November 7, Suha, for unknown reasons, rejected an unequivocal recommendation by the medical team to perform a liver biopsy on Arafat in order to rule out the possibility of a rare lymphoma (a malignant disease of the lymphatic system).
At the same time, she asked Walid al-Omari, the Al Jazeera correspondent in Israel and the territories, to let her make a special announcement in a live broadcast. Al-Omari, like his millions of viewers, was flabbergasted at what Suha Arafat read from a prepared statement by phone: "This is a plea to the Palestinian people. A group of plotters and conspirators is seeking to bury Abu Amar while he is still alive ... But he is in a good state of health and he will return. I will not allow this."
The dramatic declaration had a boomerang effect. The media interviewed Palestinian citizens who lashed out at Suha. The Palestinian leaders, who had by then arrived in Paris, felt the tailwind of encouragement from the territories. The president of Tunisia spoke with Suha and warned her that she "had crossed every line."
The criticism had its effect. When the Palestinian delegation arrived at the hospital (after meeting with President Chirac), Suha fell on them in tears, embracing and kissing them and apologizing for what she had done. At the same time, it was agreed that only Abu Ala would be allowed to visit Arafat.
"Abu Ala collapsed the moment he entered the room and saw the Rais," says one of the observers through the window. "The Rais's whole body was connected to tubes, he had lost a great deal of weight and he was not conscious. The medical team had to help Abu Ala up from the floor."
The delegation received an official briefing from the medical team on Arafat's condition (by decision of the French authorities and contrary to Suha's wish). "The head of the team of physicians at Percy and the hospital director explained to us that all his body systems had stopped functioning," relates Nasser al-Kidwa, Arafat's nephew and at the time the PLO ambassador to the United Nations.
"They said there could be several causes: cancer, serious infection or poisoning. However, the physicians explained that they had found with certainty that Arafat did not have cancer and that they had not found a serious infection. They also said they had found no evidence of any known poison." As the Palestinian delegation made its way back to Ramallah it was clear to them that they had to prepare quickly for Arafat's funeral and for a transfer of power. At the family's request, the president of the Sharia courts in the territories, Sheikh Bayoud al-Tamimi, traveled to Paris to be with Arafat in his final moments.
All that remained was to issue the official announcement of Arafat's death, but it continued to be delayed. Six days had gone by since Arafat fell into a coma, but Sheikh al-Tamimi reported from the hospital that Abu Amar, who was connected to respirators, was still alive. Under Islamic religious law, it is strictly forbidden to disconnect a person from a respirator as long as he is defined as being alive.
On Tuesday, November 9, at 4 A.M., Arafat opened his eyes for the last time. He responded to touch and to speech. An hour later there was no longer any response. A CT of his brain showed massive bleeding, "like a tsunami," in various areas of the brain. The possibility of surgery was rejected out of hand because of his general condition.
"Subconsciously we knew it was over, but we kept hoping the whole time," al-Kidwa says.
However, at 3:30 A.M. on November 11 Arafat died in the Paris hospital, some two weeks after leaving the Muqata, where he would be buried.
Following solemn but restrained memorial ceremonies in Paris and Cairo, Arafat's body was brought back to the presidential compound in Ramallah. As two Super Frelons, this time Egyptian, landed, they were mobbed by a huge crowd. Thousands of Palestinians charged the helicopter containing the body of the "Father."
The organizers implored the tens of thousands of mourners to allow Arafat's coffin to be moved to the burial site, but to no avail. Dozens of members of the security forces fired into the air in an attempt to disperse the crowd, but the shooting was mixed with the fusillades of salute let loose by armed militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. It was only a few hours later, amid the great melee, that the organizers of the funeral succeeded in burying Arafat, with only a handful of people noticing the act of interment. The widow, Suha Arafat, preferred not to come to the ceremony in Ramallah, after being told that she would not get a warm welcome.