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Al Jazeera and the Poisoning of Arafat

I really never meant to weigh in on the international controversy on how Yasir Arafat died, but of late there’s no getting away from it. Suha Arafat, his very rich widow (thanks to the piles of millions left by the man she tried to divorce “over a hundred times,” as she put it this year) claims he was poisoned by polonium. Divorce or no divorce, her grief over his death is apparently so vivid she called on the Palestinian Authority to halt peace talks with Israel, the country she felt was behind Arafat’s death. Al Jazeera, in a documentary called Killing Arafat, claims the same, taking Suha pretty much at her word, which is an interesting decision on the part of a news organization.

Swiss investigators, in a carefully worded statement, postulated that Arafat might have been poisoned by polonium. A Russian investigation didn’t turn up much. French investigators claim flatly that the Palestinian leader wasn’t poisoned at all, either by polonium or anything else. He died, says their independent report, of natural causes.

So what are we to make of all this? I ask because it is Al Jazeera—and consistently Al Jazeera, the supposedly objective Qatar-based worldwide network—that keeps fanning the flames on this subject. Al Jazeera makes much of its journalistic credentials, its ability to keep a salutary emotional and professional distance from any subject matter; so much so that on any number of occasions, American television networks have accepted the results of its so-called investigation. And yet here—this taken from the news organization’s own website—is what viewers received as backup for Al Jazeera’s stunning claims regarding the Palestinian leader’s death:

The documentary also features exclusive footage of the night of the exhumation and testimony from the only man allowed to touch Yasser Arafat’s body during the procedure.

Dr. Saber Al Aloul, a Palestinian pathologist, extracted 60 samples from the Palestinian’s leader’s remains. “It was a very difficult and heavy day for all of us,” he said.

“The moment I touched the body of Yasser Arafat, I remembered his forehead. I was at medical school when I met him for the first time. I kissed him on his forehead.”

The pathologist, whose training was funded in part by the Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), talks of his pride in being able “to deliver the truth to him, our leader, symbol and father, and also to the Palestinian people and to the world.”

Well, I don’t mean to appear overly suspicious, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many pathologists whose examinations are accompanied by the recollection of a kiss. You could start with that as one reason not to include Dr. Aloul as an expert witness in any documentary on the subject of causation.

And then you could go on to Suha Arafat herself. In 2011, the widow gave Al Jazeera a gym bag containing the clothes the Palestinian leader wore prior to his death, for the purposes of testing. That was seven years after Yasser Arafat’s death. Now maybe there was important residue left on those clothes and maybe there wasn’t. But one thing is certain: the chain of evidence is very murky after seven years—and especially difficult to judge if we take into account the particularly controversial and flamboyant nature of Suha herself.

As Palestinian leader, Arafat gave his wife $200,000 a month out of the Palestinian Authority’s budget. On his death, French authorities began an investigation into transfers of almost $12 million to Paris bank accounts in Suha’s name. Suha has a lot to say about her wealth (overblown, she insists) and many, many other subjects concerning her late husband.

“We were married for 22 years and it felt like 50,” Suha told a Turkish newspaper just this year. She was always torn, she added. On the one hand, she just hated being his wife. On the other, she felt really bad about all the bad press her husband was getting, largely, she is certain, because “it is no secret that [the media] is controlled by Jews.”

The human resources division of Al Jazeera, possibly not controlled by Jews, promises potential recruits: “We tell stories that other networks do not.”

There’s absolutely no quarreling with that. 

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