Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas revives long-held suspicions over Arafat’s death ahead of Fatah congress next week
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has revived long-standing suspicions that his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was murdered. Abbas announced last week that he knew the killer’s identity, adding that the world would be “amazed when you know who did it”.
Abbas made the unexpected announcement during a commemoration, marking the 12th anniversary of Arafat’s death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the former Palestinian leader is buried.
Arafat died in a French military hospital in 2004, aged 75. He had been evacuated days earlier from his Ramallah headquarters after rapidly falling ill. His Muqata compound had been under siege by Israeli forces for more than two years.
Abbas also suggested that a Palestinian commission of inquiry into Arafat’s death may be close to releasing its findings, after years of delays. Palestinian media have wondered whether the report could be issued as soon as the end of this month, when Abbas’ Fatah movement is scheduled to hold a postponed general congress.
Jehad Harb, a researcher with the Centre for Policy and Survey Research, a think-tank based in Ramallah, told Al Jazeera there was a widely held belief among the Palestinian public that Israel was behind Arafat’s death. However, he added, there had long been speculation about whether Israel received help from Palestinians within the compound.
Abbas has previously pointed the finger at a key political rival, Mohammed Dahlan, a 55-year-old former head of the Palestinian Authority’s security services in Gaza. Dahlan, who has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2012, is reported to be keen to make a comeback and challenge Abbas’ rule.
“Abbas’ comment that the killer’s identity would surprise us implied that he was referring to someone other than Israel,” Harb said. “Most Palestinians assumed he was indicating that Dahlan or others inside the Muqata [Arafat’s headquarters] assisted Israel in killing Arafat.”
Dahlan hit back against Abbas on social media at the weekend, claiming that the Palestinian Authority president was the “sole beneficiary of Abu Ammar [Arafat’s] disappearance”.
Fear of political rival
Last week Abbas told the thousands who congregated in Ramallah: “You ask me who killed him – I know, but my testimony alone is not enough.” He added: “A commission of inquiry is digging into that, but you’ll find out at the earliest opportunity.”
Analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera suggested that the timing of Abbas’ statement reflected mounting concerns that Dahlan’s supporters will renew their challenge to his rule when the Fatah congress is due to be convened on November 29.
The congress, which elects key executive bodies, including Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, is being held in the shadow of weeks of unrest – including gun battles in the West Bank’s main cities – after Abbas dismissed Fatah leaders from Dahlan’s camp and cancelled the salaries of many of his supporters.
Dahlan himself was found guilty in absentia of “defaming” Abbas at a trial in 2014.
This month a recently re-established Constitutional Court conferred on Abbas the power to strip Palestinian legislators of their immunity, apparently in an effort to stifle criticism of his rule and prevent Dahlan, himself a elected politician, from returning.
Abbas has sparked further anger by severely limiting those entitled to attend the congress as a way to sideline Dahlan’s influence.
“It is hard not to connect the comments about Arafat’s murder and the congress,” Samir Awad, a politics professor at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, told Al Jazeera. “This seems to be part of pre-emptive efforts by Abbas to bolster his ratings against any challengers that emerge.”
Plot against Abbas?
Abbas is said to be under growing pressure from Arab states to name a successor and initiate a transition process, with Dahlan widely identified as their preferred choice. Other reports have claimed that the UAE, Egypt and Jordan have been secretly plotting to overthrow 81-year-old Abbas and replace him with Dahlan.
In recent days an official Palestinian TV channel has aired a video suggesting not only that Israel assassinated Arafat but that it is now preparing to do the same to Abbas. A voice warns that Israel carried out Arafat’s “murder by poison”, adding: “The plot is renewed and history repeats itself. The Palestinian president is again under attack.”
One civil society leader in the West Bank, who wished not to be named, given the increasingly repressive atmosphere, told Al Jazeera that the video was intended to discredit any moves against Abbas by framing them as “part of a plot by Israel”.
“Abbas is consolidating his powers and by the day behaves more like a paranoid dictator,” he said.
That view was echoed by Dahlan in an interview in Cairo with the Palestinian news agency Maan last month. While denying that he had ambitions to become president, he said: “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is working to drive out all the voices that aren’t obedient to him.”
Dahlan’s supporters have warned that their treatment, and Abbas’ refusal to offer them any form of reconciliation, is driving the Fatah movement towards a schism.
There has not been a presidential election since 2005, and Abbas’ mandate is seen by many as long exhausted. Internal wrangling means the Fatah congress – assuming that it is not cancelled at the last moment – will be the first since 2009.
Demands for evidence
George Giacaman, director of Muwatin, a democracy promotion organisation in Ramallah, agreed that the impression left by Abbas’ speech was that Dahlan was implicated. “It could be that Abbas hopes he can thereby weaken Dahlan’s influence at the congress,” he told Al Jazeera.
But he pointed out that most Palestinians, and especially Dahlan’s supporters, would expect concrete evidence, not just accusations. “The commission [of inquiry] has been dragging its feet for years. The question is, does Abbas have any evidence?”
He added: “It is possible that the inquiry has evidence of who killed Arafat but is censoring it, maybe because of external political pressure – from, say, Israel or the US. Or it could be that it has found no evidence and does not want to admit its failure.”
There have been rumours that Abbas might use the congress to split his three leadership roles, remaining as president of the PA while allowing others to step in as the heads of the Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. One possible option would be to offer one of the positions to Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.
Other prominent contenders include Nasser al-Qudwa, the former Palestinian representative to the UN and a nephew of Arafat; Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief and the current head of the Palestinian Football Association; Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian intelligence service; and Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO.
However, Awad said Abbas was unlikely to relinquish any of the top jobs. “It would be a risky move, because it would trigger riots from the supporters of other hopefuls. Abbas wants to keep things quiet, and the status quo is the best way for him to do that.”
History of assassinations
Suspicions of Israel’s involvement in Arafat’s death are not restricted to Palestinians. Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli parliament and a veteran peace activist who was close to the late Palestinian leader, maintained from the outset that Israel had murdered him.
He told Al Jazeera:
“I saw Arafat a few weeks before he died and he appeared in good health. It is impossible that we still have no plausible explanation for his sudden death, unless it was caused by a poison that leaves no trace.” He added: “One has to ask who profits. And on those grounds, suspicions must fall on Israel.”
Israel has a long history of assassinating Palestinian leaders, including by poisoning them with sophisticated and hard-to-trace toxins. Years after Arafat’s death, his body was exhumed so that medical teams could take samples, following demands from his wife, Suha.
A French team rejected foul play, but Swiss scientists found traces of polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, indicating that he had been poisoned.
Last week Abbas also inaugurated the Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah, an exhibition exploring Arafat’s role in the Palestinian liberation struggle.
• First published in Al Jazeera