Why was Arafat killed?

On November 7, Raanan Gissin commented on the instructions given by the then PM Ariel Sharon in 2002, to the effect that “everything [must] be done to ensure that Arafat… was not killed by our soldiers,” the statement is correct but also misleading as to Israel’s responsibility for Arafat’s death. The Swiss team has concluded that polonium 210 was the weapon and in Francois Bochud’s words the “results reasonably support the poisoning theory.”  Although recent French medical reports suggested otherwise and that he died of natural causes, yet we are left to ponder the reasons and the hands that carried out the murder not whether it was a murder. The question is why and what interests were served by killing Arafat?

Oslo, Arafat and ending the PLO

To understand the decision-making process that led to Arafat’s murder, we must go back to the events that culminated into the Oslo Accords; the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and the political re-emergence of Sharon after a prolonged absence which was the final nail in the “peace process coffin”. From the beginning of the “peace process”, Israel’s leadership moved to create “facts on the ground” in an attempt to prejudice final negotiations and to strengthen the hold of settlers in the West Bank.

Israel had a deep mistrust of Arafat and the PLO. It attempted to eliminate both in the past. For Arafat, the engagement in peace negotiations was a strategic decision taken at a time of changing regional and global power structures. He believed in resistance and that it should always be an option independent of negotiations until the occupation is ended. Yet in this process Israel wanted Arafat to use his power to provide security for the settlements and settlers while they both expanded throughout the negotiations, an untenable position for the Palestinian leadership.

In this context, Israel understood and needed Arafat since he was not a regular figure, but rather an embodiment of the Palestinian struggle in his persona, history, dress and political machination. He was the bridge between all Palestinian factions and despite his best efforts to maintain control and discipline post-Oslo, Israel’s strategy at fragmenting the PLO and penetrating its inner leadership circle in the Occupied Territories was gaining traction. Arafat’s hold on power levers was the only remaining obstruction.  

In reality, the PLO was the major challenge to Israel since it represented the Palestinians’ collective claims and had an effective global footprint. I do have long standing and extensive critique of the PLO.This, however, should not be confused with recognising the importance and the role it played across the globe, managing to create a state of Palestine without a territory – a monumental feat if one considers the obstacles.  

Arafat entered the “peace process” in a very weak position with limited or no Arab support, and a changing regional and global strategic map. One has to see the signing of Oslo as his way of getting back into centre stage and forcing Palestine on the international agenda. However, it was a strategic miscalculation to trust the US in the search for a Palestinian state. The Oslo agreement ended the PLO as an international body and transformed it into an authority responsible for the Palestinians under occupation. Thus the global challenge posed by the PLO was eliminated and what remained was subject to direct Israeli control, if not employed by it. One Israeli aim in the “peace process” was to decapitate the PLO and to end the Palestinian political structure, narrowing the scope of legal claims against it.

Al-Aqsa intifada and isolating Arafat

On September 28, 2001, the Second Intifada erupted after Ariel Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa compound with over 1000 Israeli soldiers. The visit was the needed spark for a ticking bomb emerging from unfulfilled expectations and the Palestinians’ loss of land since the signing of Oslo. The response from Israel was massive and violent, especially after the highly contentious election that brought Ariel Sharon to the PM.

Sharon’s strategy included the isolation and replacement of Arafat, which if successful would have brought the Oslo process to a dead end. The isolation of Arafat started immediately after the elections in 2001, with then spokesman Raanan Gissin emphasising that there is no possibility for a political settlement “as long as he is around”. Sharon’s “peace” was only possible when a new Palestinian “prime minister who really would be strong” takes over responsibilities from Arafat. The plan was for a “post-Arafat leader” who would be amenable to accepting a “long-term interim agreement” without any changes to land control or settlements – a re-working of Sharon’s earlier plans for the territories. In a short period, what started as an Israeli strategy became the policy of the US with the then Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry and current Secretary of State calling Arafat “an outlaw to the peace process” and “an impediment to” it.

Arafat became a persona non grata not welcomed in diplomatic gatherings, while the newly empowered PM Mahmoud Abbas was invited to meetings with President Bush and Arab leaders at the World Economic Forum. While Sharon was called a “man of peace” by President Bush,  Arab leaders had no objections to Arafat’s isolation. Certainly, the train of Arab normalisation has left the station and Arafat was no longerwelcome on it.

Why kill Arafat?

After the First Gulf War, a new order emerged that witnessed normalisation of relations between  Arab and Muslim states and Israel, cooperation in intelligence and military training, economic investment and projects with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, US, Europe and Gulf States that produced a new elite connected to and ready to defend this order and its interests in it.

In addition and a very important fact is that Sharon, the US and the Arab world operated in a post 9/11 logic and a changing global landscape with Arafat being a relic from a distant political past. The “new” order in the Arab world supported invading Iraq, opened torture centres for rendition and linked its security, economic and political elites to Israel. Arafat was the odd man in the mix. For him, Palestine was a real cause and not a mere tool to dispense with for a new free trade zone, a Most Favorite Nation clause or sweat shops for products to be sold at Macy’s.

The new alignment moved swiftly to factor Arafat out and I believed in 2002 that his days were numbered and that the search for a replacement was underway. More importantly, Israel managed to divide the Palestinian national body and fragmented the consensus on the touchstone issues that defined the cause since the 1948.  At best, the current Palestinian political structure is a hostage to Israel’s occupational forces, and at worst it has been transformed into a platform for paid employees empowered to protect the settlements from the anger of the Palestinians.

What Arafat had was his signature, and as soon as it was delivered in 1993, the execution countdown was under way. Indeed, what was left was the how and when, not the if. Arafat’s nationalist credentials were a threat not to be left to circumstances or allowed to reconstitute. Arafat was killed because he was too nationalist for his own good and too aware of the historical and religious significance of Palestine to accept being a chief in a new colonial plantation.

The hands that delivered the venom were ready to serve in a Palestinian Bantustan connected to the neoliberal Arab and Muslim order, with all its glitter and wealth. For sure, the actual hands that placed the polonium for Arafat’s consumption are Palestinian belonging to the inner circle but the execution warrant can be traced to Sharon, Israel and the host of players in the new Arab order that have too much invested to worry about the life of one old man or Palestine for that matter.