Israel News

Why the Arafat murder myth will stay alive

PLO leader leader Yasser Arafat. Credit: World Economic Forum.
PLO leader leader Yasser Arafat. Credit: World Economic Forum.

Like a mini-series staggering to the end of its 10th season, the latest probe into the alleged murder of Yasser Arafat, the former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader who died in Paris in 2004, recently passed an entirely predictable milestone when French investigators announced that they were closing the case without bringing any charges.

In their ruling, the investigative judges said that there was “not sufficient evidence of an intervention by a third party who could have attempted to take [Arafat’s] life.” Nor were there any grounds to believe that Arafat was poisoned by polonium-210, a highly radioactive isotope, as was alleged by Arafat’s widow, Suha, when she filed murder charges in 2012 at the district court in the Nanterre suburb of Paris. Directly as a result of Suha’s insistence that her husband was murdered, Arafat’s body was briefly exhumed from its burial spot in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in order for French, Russian, and Swiss investigators to gather samples.

What a waste of time and money. The French conclusion that there was nothing to underpin the Arafat murder claim came almost two years after the Russians arrived at the same determination. In December 2013, having conducted the requisite tests, Vladimir Uiba, the head of the Russian Federal Medical and Biological Agency, declared that the PLO leader had died of natural causes. (The Russians, incidentally, know a good deal about the deadly impact of polonium, having allegedly used it in the 2006 assassination in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer and stalwart critic of President Vladimir Putin.)

Will the French announcement mean that there will finally be an end to the chatter about Arafat’s murder? Regrettably, there are good reasons to think not.

If Suha were the only person still convinced that Arafat was murdered, it wouldn’t really matter, as her credibility has already been irreparably battered by her habit of flinging false accusations—for example, that Israel used poison gas against Palestinians in the West Bank—without a shred of evidence. Nor are Palestinians themselves particularly fond of her. Claims that Suha had inherited millions of dollars in bank accounts previously controlled by Arafat were widely reported in the Arab press in 2007, and her more recent attacks on Hamas for “Islamizing” Gaza haven’t done her any favors either. Ditto for her admission that Arafat apparently told her that he planned the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, thereby undermining the impression that Palestinians rose up spontaneously against the Israeli “occupation.”

Suha’s bizarre opinions on Arafat’s death are, however, broadly shared by the Palestinian Authority (PA). I say “broadly” because Suha, at least, concedes that the Israelis are not the only party who could have murdered her husband; dissident Palestinians, she admits, might also have been responsible. The PA, though, says that Arafat was murdered and that the Israelis—and no one other than the Israelis—were responsible.

Indeed, Gen. Tawfik Terawi, the head of the PA’s investigative committee into Arafat’s death, is adamant about this point. After the Russians concluded that there was no basis for further investigation in 2013, Terawi angrily declared, “It is not important that I say here that he was killed by polonium. But I say, with all the details available about Yasser Arafat’s death, that he was killed and that Israel killed him. We say that Israel is the prime, fundamental and only suspect in the case of Yasser Arafat’s assassination, and we will continue to carry out a thorough investigation to find out and confirm all the details and all elements of the case.”

Neither did the French announcement cause Terawi to change his tune. “We’ll continue our investigation to reach the killer of Arafat until we know how Arafat was killed,” he told the French news agency AFP. For Terawi, there is no question that Arafat was killed, and that Israel, in his unforgettable phrase, is “the prime, fundamental, and only suspect” in that regard.

In common with many of the conspiracy theories that prevail in the Arab world, the appeal of the “Arafat-was-murdered” theme hasn’t been weakened by the availability of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—even though that evidence comes in the main from the French and the Russians, two countries that have always supported the PLO and the Palestinian cause. This is because evidence doesn’t come into it: What we are dealing with here, instead, is yet another manifestation of the Palestinian political strategy of demonizing Israel as a serial killer.

In this narrative, Israel’s “killing” of Arafat is another link in the long chain of murder and atrocity that was inaugurated during the Jewish state’s War of Independence in 1948-49. The PA stubbornly clings to the Arafat myth because it regards an acknowledgment of the truth as a dangerous political concession. Like the other well-known elements in the Palestinian propaganda arsenal—Israel’s very creation was an original sin, Jews have no basis to claim a connection to the land, and so forth—the Arafat myth is a convenient reminder of the racism and violence in Israel’s very DNA. And how can you make peace with an enemy like that?

One can make the case that the real losers in all this are the Palestinians themselves. At a time when Israelis on left and right are becoming more concerned by the “price tag” attacks carried out by radical Jews residing in the West Bank, the PA could demonstrate that it is a responsible peace partner by officially exonerating Israel of responsibility for a murder that wasn’t, in fact, a murder, and by calling for renewed peace talks at the same time. Needless to say, the PA doesn’t have the courage or the foresight for an initiative like that.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).  

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates