The final days of Yasser Arafat
Newly revealed medical documents shed light on Yasser Arafat's mysterious final illness. A special report.
Israeli experts who analyzed the report drawn up by the medical team that treated Yasser Arafat in Paris say that the most likely possibility is that he was poisoned in a dinner meal on October 12, 2004. Arafat's personal physician insists that a test that was done on him in the French hospital whose results were removed from the post-mortem report found AIDS in his blood. In the revised edition of their book 'The Seventh War,' Avi Isacharoff and Amos Harel make public Arafat's post-mortem report, the Palestinian Authority's most closely guarded document, and reconstruct the last days of the Rais the rapid deterioration, the loss of memory, the fits of rage, Suha's takeover, the humiliation of senior Palestinian figures, the shouting at Jacques Chirac and the suspicious red blotches on the chairman's face.
"I know that the physicians in Paris found the AIDS virus in Arafat's blood," Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, the personal physician of the late Palestinian Authority chairman, says in a telephone interview from Amman. Dr. al-Kurdi, who was kept from joining the Palestinian delegation that accompanied Arafat on his final trip to Paris, does not say where he got this sensational information. To heighten the mystery, he also maintains that Arafat was poisoned and that the AIDS virus that was found in his blood "was injected into his body in order to camouflage the poisoning."
Strange as it may seem, al-Kurdi is not the only one who says that Arafat was infected with AIDS. Similar allegations are made by an Israeli physician, who was told about it by a French colleague who treated Arafat, and by sources in the Israeli defense establishment. Even though some of the symptoms of the mysterious disease that caused Arafat's death 10 months ago resemble those of AIDS, the detailed report prepared by the French medical team makes no mention of any test that would confirm or rule out the existence of the virus in his blood. Prof. Gil Lugassi, president of the Israeli Society of Hematology, who read the French medical report, says that the fact that this possibility was ignored is "simply inconceivable and very bizarre." "I can only assume," he says, "that if there had been an AIDS test with negative results, there would have been no problem saying so in the report."
On the other hand, senior figures in the Palestinian Authority (PA) are convinced that Israel is behind the mysterious death. They, too, cite weighty grounds. They all remember vividly the militant declarations of the Israeli leadership about the need to remove Arafat from power. Nor have they forgotten Israel's attempted assassination of a senior Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, in Amman, with the use of a mysterious poison that was unknown to Jordan's top physicians. An official commission of inquiry appointed by the PA to investigate Arafat's death has held up the publication of its conclusions for months.
In the new edition of their book "The Seventh War," which deals with the five-year confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians that began in September 2000, the journalists Avi Isacharoff (Israel Radio) and Amos Harel (Haaretz) devote a chapter to a detailed probe of the last weeks of Arafat's life. They make public for the first time the main points of the report drawn up by the medical team of Percy military hospital, in the Paris suburb of Clamart, where Arafat was treated in the last two weeks of his life. The French physicians do not think that Arafat was poisoned, but also refrain from adducing an alternative cause of death. "It is not possible to determine a cause that will explain the combination of symptoms that caused the patient's death," the summarizing report of the hospital's intensive care ward states.
An abridged version of the chapter on Arafat's death which includes, together with details of the medical report and the claims that the AIDS virus was found in his blood, a description of the struggles for control and succession that took place behind the scenes in the PA as Arafat lay dying is published here for the first time. (The revised edition of "The Seventh War" will be published at the end of this month by Yedioth Ahronoth in Hebrew.)
Who is Beilin?The first indications of a serious deterioration in the health of Yasser Arafat appeared on Tuesday, October 12, 2004. The chairman's physicians diagnosed a disease of the digestive tract. Long before that, Arafat had suffered from a variety of illnesses and ailments: a hemorrhage in the skull as the result of a plane crash, vitiligo (a skin disease), general trembling (which was treated with drugs in the last decade of his life), and a persistent stomach inflammation which he first contracted in October 2003.
In the last year of his life, Arafat's ailments became more acute and affected his mental state. "He was diagnosed with an ulcer and with gallstones. The Rais (leader) collapsed several times, suffered from general weakness, and his state of mind was subject to ups and downs," one of his confidants relates. "He felt that the siege around him was tightening and that the world was losing interest in him. It seemed as though everyone had forgotten him."
Arafat tended not to believe those around him, often with good reason. "He asked for explanations concerning every document that reached his bureau, and when people commented on his excitability he grew angry, his whole body trembled, and he shouted, "Ana ma'akur' [I'm in a bad way.]"
In addition to the mental deterioration and the physical weakness, Arafat sometimes also suffered from partial memory loss. He spent hours upon hours reading while sitting on the bridge of the besieged Muqata his Ramallah headquarters the only place he was able to enjoy the sun's rays. On one occasion, when he came across a report that mentioned an old acquaintance, Yossi Beilin, the leader of Meretz, Arafat stunned his escorts by asking, "Who is Beilin?"
This state of affairs reached a peak when he asked someone what his daughter's name was. "Abu Amar [Arafat] changed," says a confidant of the Palestinian leader. "About two months before his collapse, the Rais already needed help in tying his shoes and in walking. He looked broken." However, when Palestinian delegations arrived to visit him, he seemed to become a different person. "He embraced and kissed everyone who came to see him. He was in excellent spirits and was delighted with every present he received."
Arafat gulped down medicines that people brought him but told his aides they were vitamins his physicians had prescribed. When the aides asked the physicians, they were told that they had not given the Rais any new prescriptions. "I asked him why he was taking those medicines and he waved me off with the reply, "Leave it to God."
On that particular Tuesday, after dinner, the people in the Muqata noticed that Arafat was having trouble standing up unaided. He complained of nausea and vomiting. The Egyptian consul general to the PA, Nader al-A'asser, asked Arafat to let him organize a delegation of physicians from Egypt. Arafat agreed. The next day, October 13, he underwent comprehensive tests. The Egyptian team said that Arafat had the flu and returned to Cairo. For no clear reason, no one bothered to inform Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, about the worsening of the chairman's health. "I do not know why," al-Kurdi says. "In the past they summoned me for every minor flu that Abu Amar suffered from."
On October 18, the president of Tunisia, Zine El-Abadine Ben Ali, sent a medical delegation of his own to the Muqata. The Tunisian team diagnosed for the first time that Arafat had thrombocytopenia (a decrease in the number of platelets in the blood, often associated with hemorrhagic conditions). The cause of this development was not clear; the physicians recommended that Arafat enter the hospital in Ramallah for treatment and monitoring. They explained to Arafat's advisers that the makeshift treatment room in the Muqata, with its elementary medical instruments, was insufficient. Arafat, who had declined similar recommendations during the previous year, for fear that Israel would not allow him to return to his headquarters, did not reject the idea outright this time.
The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), visited Arafat every day after he was diagnosed with "flu." In their talks, Arafat was updated about events in the PA and in the international arena. Despite his weariness, Arafat showed considerable interest in the developments. Abu Ala's impression was that the "Old Man" would survive this illness, too. However, on Tuesday, October 25, Rami Khoury, Arafat's bureau chief, called Abu Ala to report a dramatic deterioration in the chairman's condition.
Arafat was suffering from severe stomach pains and exhaustion and was showing a pronounced inability to concentrate, Khoury said. He was throwing up everything he ate and was unable to recognize some of the people around him. Abu Ala called Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who until then had been persona non grata in the Muqata, telling Abu Mazen that Arafat's health had worsened and that he must visit him. Abu Mazen, who had intimated in media interviews that Arafat was directly responsible for attempts to assassinate him during his term as prime minister, acceded to the suggestion.
A blood test administered to Arafat that night showed a further sharp decrease in the number of platelets (thrombocytes). The count stood at 46,000, compared with about 150,000 per microliter of blood in a healthy individual. A test of the bone marrow, which is responsible for producing the platelets, found nothing amiss. This raised a host of questions. A further series of tests ruled out leukemia, and there was also no sign of serious infection. The head of the Egyptian medical team, Dr. Ibrahim Mustafa, urged that Arafat be moved immediately to the hospital in Ramallah. Finally it was decided to wait for a third team, this one from Jordan, to provide an additional opinion. It was only then, on Wednesday morning, that Dr. al-Kurdi, the chairman's personal physician, was summoned urgently to Ramallah. Suha Arafat, the leader's wife, who was visiting Tunisia, was also asked to come to the Muqata immediately. On the night between Wednesday and Thursday dozens of physicians, confidants and advisers were milling around in the Muqata. Journalists put up tents at the entry to the compound, awaiting medical bulletins.
"When I met him on that Thursday, he was not the Arafat I knew," Dr. al-Kurdi says. "He was suffering from loss of weight, pains in the region of the kidneys and stomach, a total loss of appetite and a decrease in the production of blood platelets. He had large round red spots on his face and his skin was yellow. Every physician will tell you that these are symptoms of poisoning." A hematologist from Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, says that if it were poisoning, there would have been a decrease in the production of white blood cells, which was not the case. However, according to al-Kurdi, it may have been an unknown poison, which does not necessarily work like "regular poison" and attack the white blood cells, too.
"There were too many peculiar indications," al-Kurdi insists. "I convened the medical team and asked them for a report on the results of their tests so far. The heads of the teams explained to me that the thrombocytopenia was not caused by a cessation in the production of the platelets in the bone marrow, but by the destruction of the platelets in the bloodstream. The possibilities of stomach cancer, leukemia or infection were also ruled out. The possibilities that remained for the cause of the illness were a failure of the immune system or poisoning. The physicians explained that those hypotheses could only be examined in a hospital abroad."
The red blotches on Arafat's face generated considerable attention. It is difficult to know whether they were caused by hemorrhaging due to problems of blood-clotting, or were skin lesions known as Kaposi's sarcoma (usually associated with elderly Ashkenazi Jews and AIDS victims). Dr. al-Kurdi says that he does not know for certain whether Arafat underwent a test for AIDS as part of the examinations conducted by the Tunisian and Egyptian medical teams. When he asked the physicians if such a test had been done, the Tunisian team responded positively and said the results were negative.
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