What Killed Yasser Arafat?

Yossi Melman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yossi Melman

"Yasser Arafat was not poisoned," reveals attorney Dov Weissglas, the director of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau at the time of the PLO chief's mysterious death on November 11, 2004 at the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris. In a rare comment on the subject by a senior Israeli official, who had access to confidential information and was very close to Sharon, Weissglas dispels the rumor mill and conspiracy theories that have been around ever since. The early speculation attributed his death to medical causes. One explanation was that Arafat was a homosexual and died of AIDS. Another explanation was that he died of food poisoning.

What do you think about this article? Share your thoughts at the Haaretz.com Facebook page

Yasser Arafat with his doctors in his compound in Ramallah in 2004.Credit: AP

Later on, the Palestinian media began clinging to real rumors and claiming that the Israeli intelligence poisoned him. They relied on a few circumstantial facts. The first was that Ariel Sharon saw Arafat as a bitter enemy and Israel tried to assassinate him several times since he formed the PLO in the early 1960s. Another reason for the rumors was the comments whispered by the defense minister at the time, Shaul Mofaz, to Prime Minister Sharon, at a press conference after the navy captured the Karin A ship in the Red Sea as it was carrying arms ordered by Arafat, from Iran to Gaza. "We have to get rid of him," Mofaz whispered without realizing that the microphones were on and his comments were recorded.

The conspiracy theory

The conspiracy theory gained credence due to the related comments by journalist Uri Dan, who was a close associate of Sharon, implying that Arafat had supposedly been assassinated at the behest of the prime minister. There was also the fact that using poison is not an unknown method for Israeli intelligence, which has resorted to that method in assassination attempts, as attested to by two notable, well-known incidents. In 1978, the Mossad sent a package of Belgian chocolates to Dr. Wadia Hadad, the leader of a faction that broke away from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was responsible for the hijacking of the Air France flight to Entebbe two years earlier. Hadad developed leukemia and died in an East Berlin hospital and to this day, there is a dispute as to whether his death was caused by poisoning or was a result of his illness. Some two decades later, in 1997, Mossad agents attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on a street Amman, using a can to spray poison on his earlobe. Meshal collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. His life was saved only after the Mossad was compelled to dispatch a doctor with an antidote to the Jordanian capital.

"It is true that Sharon despised Arafat," stressed Weissglas in an interview with Haaretz. "He considered him Israel's greatest enemy at the time and also an obstacle to any peace deal. That is why he also stubbornly refused to meet with him. But despite all that, Sharon never dealt with the possibility of causing bodily harm to him." And what about Mofaz's whispered comment? "Mofaz may have whispered, but Sharon ignored it."

Uri Dan hinted that Arafat was assassinated. "Sharon's view and his attitude toward Arafat were clear. He sanctioned a diplomatic war against him, but did not agree to a physical assault on him. It was very important to him, given the ongoing second intifada to isolate him physically and functionally, but he did not, under any circumstances, agree to harm him physically."

Arafat's political demise

According to Weissglas, Arafat's political demise involved two stages. The first was in January 2002 following the disclosure of his direct involvement in the decision to order arms from Iran and smuggle them onboard a ship to Gaza. The second stage, which led to Arafat's political isolation, came in May 2002 in Washington. "U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed us that the president was going to deliver a speech that would outline his Middle East policy and we started exchanging ideas with the administration and they focused on the effort to explain to them Arafat's negative role. In May, we relayed intelligence information to the U.S. that included clear proof of Arafat's involvement in the decisions to approve funding for terrorism."

In Weissglas's assessment, the Israeli effort yielded results on June 24, 2002. That's when President Bush delivered his famous speech, which became known as the Road Map. In that same speech, the president talked about the Palestinians' right to a new and different leadership, one that would combat terrorism. "It was essentially a public and open call for the end of the Arafat rule. The call entailed a de facto American administration boycott of Arafat."

For over two years, the Israeli and American boycott of Arafat continued, as he was living and working in a few rooms at the destroyed Muqata (headquarters ) in Ramallah. The Israeli siege worsened the already difficult conditions for anyone there, due to the crowding, lack of running water and poor sanitary conditions - all the more so for the 75-year-old Arafat.

In late October 2004, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign minister, visited Israel. "In the middle of a meeting with us," Weissglas recalled, "he got a call from the Palestinians, who reported that there was deterioration in Arafat's health. He asked of me that we allow him to leave the Muqata and see a doctor. I called Arik and he responded that Arafat should be permitted to leave for medical tests in Ramallah. The next day, Solana called me and said that even though it is unclear what illness he has, the tests revealed that Arafat's condition is serious and he asked that we allow him to get better and more organized treatment in Europe, and that was unavailable in Ramallah."

A meeting of senior defense officials was convened to discuss the request. IDF and intelligence officials objected and argued that his medical condition is not serious. They suspected that Arafat would recover quickly, travel around abroad, and mobilize public opinion against Israel which would then be required to return him to Ramallah. Sharon decided to go against their position. "Even before that, on one occasion, the possibility was raised that the IDF would go into the Muqata, forcibly remove Arafat and then we would put him on a plane abroad. But when Arik realized the operation was complex and might encounter problems, and end in Arafat's injury, he ruled it out. Now, given the requests of Solana and the Palestinians, Arik decided to allow Arafat's immediate airlift to France for medical treatment. He was worried that Arafat's death inside the Muqata would do serious diplomatic damage to Israel because it had prevented him from receiving medical treatment that could save his life."

Arafat was flown to the military hospital in Paris. Initially it was reported that his condition was improving, but after two weeks it deteriorated and he died. The French government published a murky notice and the cause of his death could not be understood from it, further stoking the rumor mills and conspiracy theories. Even today the doctors who treated him and the hospital directors refuse to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding Arafat's death, and did not respond to Haaretz's queries on the matter.

According to the assessment of an Israeli source knowledgeable about the issue, Arafat died of leukemia that had worsened due to an error in judgment or even negligence on the part of the attending doctors.