Arafat Assassination Allegations: The Plot Thickens By TOUFIC HADDAD

21 July, 2009 — Faster Times

The scandal surrounding allegations made by Farouq al Qaddoumi against the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership continues to make waves across the Palestinian political landscape.

Qaddoumi heads the PLO politburo and Fateh’s Central Committee. Last week he released a document that implicated current PA president Abu Mazen and his henchman Mohammed Dahlan in Israeli intentions to poison former PA president Yasser Arafat. The damning allegations were a frontal attack on the legitimacy of Abu Mazen and Dahlan, who remains a powerful, albeit controversial figure in its backrooms, despite not currently holding any governmental position. Qaddoumi’s allegations have weight to them because he is one of the last remaining, heavy-hitting Palestinian revolutionary figures from the era when the PLO was established, and one of a handful of surviving founders of Fateh. The allegations also cast a shadow over the upcoming August 4 Fateh Conference to be held in Bethlehem, raising questions about the extent to which the matter will genuinely be investigated internally, and if needed, whether Abu Mazen and Dahlan will be held accountable by the party’s base.

It is first necessary to update developments in this case to see where things have been heading.

The pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera conducted a live interview with Qaddoumi on July 16 in which he reiterated that the document he presented was indeed genuine. Qaddoumi claimed he had hoped to release the document at the upcoming Fateh Conference but was forced to release it now because Abu Mazen decided – in an illegitimate and unilateral manner, according to Qaddoumi – to hold the conference in the West Bank. Qaddoumi argues that this essentially prevents members from Fateh who live outside of Palestine from participating in the conference. Elements of the diasporic Palestinian leadership, including Qaddoumi, refused to return to Palestine in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo Accords, because they fundamentally disagreed with them. Qaddoumi also objects to holding the conference in areas where Israeli occupation troops essentially do as they please – entering and arresting who they want – though nominally Bethlehem is under PA control. The concern over holding the conference in Bethlehem extends beyond Qaddoumi though, as elements of the movement are still wanted by Israel and fear arrest if the conference is actually held there. Rumors have circulated that Abu Mazen is extending invitations and using his influence with Israel to have his loyalists who reside outside Palestine, return for the conference, as a means to consolidate his supporting camp within the party.

A couple of other pieces of information have also been thrown into the mix.

Qaddoumi still refuses to reveal how he obtained the minutes of the secret meeting in which the plan to poison Arafat was supposedly hatched. But he does claim to have spoken to Arafat about it, confirming receipt of the document. Qaddoumi apparently tried to convince Arafat to leave the country, but the latter insisted on dying like a martyr without turning back on his beliefs.

Other Arabic news sources are reporting separate interviews with Qaddoumi in which the latter has threatened to release more information, saying, “Now I say to them [the Fateh Executive Committee and the Central Committee, who have harshly criticized Qaddoumi for airing the document:] ‘what would be your response if I released an audio recording in the voice of President Arafat based upon his [posthumous] request, in which he says the same things that I have said?’”

Qaddoumi has yet to release any new evidence. But if he indeed has an audio recording of Arafat, it would certainly raise the stakes for all concerned, adding weight to his allegations, which by nature are difficult to substantiate. Rather than clarify matters, Qaddoumi’s allegations have tended to throw up a lot of other questions surrounding how he got the meeting minutes in the first place, why he waited so long to release them, and what he intends to get out of the whole affair.

In this regard, Qaddoumi’s allegations appear to re-enforce pre-existing divisions in the Palestinian political theater, with PA stalwarts defending Abu Mazen, and the political opposition, primarily Hamas, believing they have credence.

Inside Fateh – where it really matters – the picture is murkier. Five branches of the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, Fateh’s armed wing in the West Bank and Gaza, released a joint statement on July 18 in which they pledge allegiance to Qaddoumi and support maneuvers to remove Abu Mazen and Dahlan from the leadership of the party and the PA. But the party’s main organs remain in the hands of Abu Mazen, who has used them to paint Qaddoumi as a senile relic of a bygone era. The PA leadership has also been supported by more independent figures who defend the innocence of the current Palestinian leadership.

Mahmoud Damra, one of Arafat’s personal body guards during his besiegement in the Muqata’a and currently a prisoner in Israel, and Arafat’s former political adviser Bassam Abu Sharif, have both rejected the claim that Abu Mazen had anything to do with Arafat’s death.

Abu Sharif suggested the intriguing theory that Arafat was indeed poisoned, but the work was all Israel’s. He claims that Israel knew Arafat was taking medication at the time and at one point stopped an ambulance headed to deliver his serum. After briefly detaining the ambulance staff, Israel replaced Arafat’s authentic medication with one that contained poison, eventually leading to its ingestion by the leader and his eventual death. Abu Sharif has referenced similar Israeli assassination methods in the past, including the killing of the legendary Palestinian guerrilla figure Wadi’ Haddad in Iraq in the 1977 with a box of poisoned Belgian chocolates, passed through an Israeli collaborator. The poison resulted in a degenerative blood illness, which eventually killed Haddad in similar mysterious circumstances. There is also the well-known case of how the Israeli Mossad tried to use poison to kill Hamas chief Khaled Mishal in Jordan in 1997. Mishal survived the assassination only because the Israeli operatives were embarrassingly caught, and Israel was forced to provide an antidote in exchange for their release.

The volley of PA counter attacks against Qaddoumi has been incessant. Al Jazeera reports that Abu Mazen is preparing to gather the existing members of the PLO Executive Committee to remove Qaddoumi from his post in the PLO. Further preparations are underway to use the convening of Fateh’s conference to remove him from Fateh’s Central Committee. There are even reports that the PA pressured Jordan to expel Qaddoumi from the country, to Syria.

The PA also ordered Al Jazeera closed for three days for publicizing the Qaddoumi affair, though it was by no means the only television station to do so. It seems that Abu Mazen wished to send Al Jazeera a message not to use its broad and powerful reach to sway opinion in the run up to the conference, while also sending a forceful message to local Palestinian media, not to investigate and report on the affair. Most local media (besides those associated with Hamas) have toed the line, resulting in much of the Arabic media discussion on the matter deriving from outside the borders of territorial Palestine.

Indeed Abu Mazen, together with his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (a former World Bank and IMF official) are trying to run a tight ship in the West Bank, cracking down on any buds of dissent to their control over the territory. They are aided in their task by a new PA crack force trained in Jordan under U.S. General Keith Dayton. Each member is vetted by Israel to make sure they have a “clean” resumé. Hamas claims that more than 1100 of its members are currently held in PA detention facilities – about a tenth the number of prisoners held in Israeli jails.

The content of Qaddoumi’s document is indeed difficult to verify. Many of the basic elements of the document are not in fact new: we know the PA leadership meets on high levels to discuss “security matters,” and that this issue became of primary importance to the Palestinian leadership after the Intifada began, and especially since Hamas took control over Gaza in June 2007. “Security” is a euphemism for the PA monitoring Palestinian political factions and ensuring that no militant activity takes place against Israel and its occupation. Many Palestinians already see this as a form of collaboration with Israel, not only because Israel fails to recognize any Palestinian national rights, while continuing its occupation, building Jewish settlements, demolishing homes, confiscating land etc., but also because Israel has simply killed over 6000 Palestinians since the Intifada began, and it is hardly the time to cooperate on “security matters” with those who are killing the Palestinian popular leadership.

One way to parse what’s going on is to read Qaddoumi’s document carefully. Abu Mazen’s participation in the discussion is not actually as incriminating as one might think.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the one who raises the issue of killing Arafat and other resistance leaders. Abu Mazen plays a kind of restraining role to Sharon, essentially arguing that neither the marginalization of Arafat nor brute force will deter the resistance or help anyone. The only way to control the situation is to have Palestinians control their affairs and to get the Israeli army out of Palestinian cities.

This raises the possibility of tactics in negotiations, which could be playing out here as well, if the document is genuine.

The PA was most interested at the time in winning time, and hopefully an Israeli withdrawal on the ground. Dahlan and Abbas’ interventions in the discussion, though cynical and seemingly treasonous, are consistent in pushing for this end. Perhaps they presumed that Sharon anyway would act as he pleased, defending what he saw as Israel’s interests. The PA needed to bring about an Israeli withdrawal, so they could reorganize their ranks, which were severely fragmented by Israel’s blows. I don’t even see it as beyond Arafat to have sent Abu Mazen and Dahlan to the meeting with these directives in the first place, allowing them to say what needed to be said to bring about this desired result. He couldn’t have done so himself. But Dahlan and Abu Mazen could. Such short term opportunism characterized Arafat’s leadership style, as long as the movement (and his leadership over it) was able to survive.

In any respect, Israel’s strategy to extinguish the Intifada relied upon shaking the Palestinian leadership, showing them ‘who’s boss’, eliminating any ‘rebellious’ nationalist figures through assassination or imprisonment, and simply playing on the contradictions that emerged within the Palestinian elite as it struggled for its survival.

In this regard, it is difficult to assess how seriously Abu Mazen and Dahlan aspired to take advantage of Israeli maneuvers to prepare the ground for taking power from Arafat. No doubt Abu Mazen and Dahlan both had interests in pushing Arafat out of the way. And the tension did spill over to the extent that Abu Mazen in fact did resign as Prime Minister, because he believed he was not getting enough power from Arafat. But the question remains whether the duo would go the length of cooperating with Israel towards that end. Israel’s maneuvers – including the assassination of resistance leaders from other factions, as well as from within Fateh – no doubt make Abu Mazen and Dahlan passive benefactors of Israel’s policies. But this is also not the same as participation in murder.

Time will tell what comes of the affair, and all eyes are set on what happens at Fateh’s conference. If Abu Mazen and his crew are able to assert leadership and control over the party, Qaddoumi and his allegations will be buried in history. But if elements of the party are determined to raise what happened in the waning days of Arafat’s rule, sticky questions will remain that threaten to split the party. Much will depend upon the composition of the conference itself, and to what extent Fateh opposition figures are allowed to participate. Additionally you have the movement’s most popular figure (Marwan Barghouti) sitting in an Israeli prison serving out a five-life term sentence, whose opinion is likely to have substantial weight in determining the trajectory of coming developments.

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