Arafat's widow awakens old ghosts with murder charge

Suha Arafat, wife of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, speaks during an interview with English-language satellite news channel Al Jazeera in Doha November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

By Noah Browning RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Yasser Arafat's widow first cried murder as her husband lay dying in 2004. Nine years later, she has raised her voice once more, accusing someone from the Palestinian leader's own inner circle of poisoning him. The allegation, fuelled by the findings of Swiss forensic experts, has been met by stony silence from Arafat's political heirs, who have long maintained that Israel was responsible for the mysterious illness that killed the Palestinian president. Suha Arafat's charge, broadcast around the Arab world, has reawakened old controversies in the Palestinian Authority, which always viewed his widow - a French-educated Christian convert to Islam who was 34 years his junior - as a liability. "Nobody should enter into accusations of this kind. He's the leader of the Palestinian people. We shouldn't differ on these issues. It's a disaster for our national cause," said Abbas Zaki, a senior member of the Fatah party Arafat led. Suha, operating in tandem with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel, released on Wednesday a report by a team of Swiss scientists that showed an unusually high level of radioactive polonium-210 in bone samples taken from Arafat's corpse. "I'm sure it's someone in his close circle," Suha told Reuters, calling Arafat's death a "political assassination." Speaking in Qatar after a tearful appearance on Al Jazeera, she said: "The expert said that the poison was put in his tea, or coffee or water, so it must have been someone close to him." She acknowledged in subsequent interviews that the polonium must have come from a country with nuclear capabilities. She did not name Israel, although many other Palestinians were quick to point the finger at their long-time foe. "The one who had an interest in his death was the occupation (Israel)," Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior member of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters. Israel denied the suggestion. "In my opinion, this is a tempest in a tea cup," said Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, who in 2004 served as foreign minister and as a member of Israel's security cabinet. "But even if it was (poisoning), it certainly was not Israel. Maybe someone else inside had thoughts or an interest to do it," he told Israel radio. "CONSPIRACY" Arafat spent the last months of his life holed up in a battle-scarred compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks. Inside the building, a core group of aides took care of their ageing leader's every need. The report by Lausanne University Hospital's Institute of Radiation Physics said that Arafat fell violently ill some four hours after a meal on October 12, 2004. He never recovered, dying a month later in a Paris hospital aged 75. Suha rushed to his bedside. She had not seen him in more than three years, having fled the Palestinian Territories with their young daughter after the outbreak of an uprising against the Israeli occupation in 2000. "I appeal to you to be aware of the scope of the conspiracy. They are trying to bury Abu Ammar (Arafat) alive," she told al-Jazeera just days before his death, suggesting that Palestinian leaders wanted to see her husband die. Her accusation infuriated PA officials, who had never accepted Suha as one of their own. They had been stunned in 1992 by his decision to marry the urbane Palestinian woman. From the word go, she made no bones about her dislike of many of Arafat's senior aides. The feeling was mutual. "The Palestinian leadership dealt with Arafat as an official and a state matter, while Suha saw it from a family perspective," said Hani Habib, a political analyst in Gaza. Since his death, Suha has lived between Malta, Paris and the Gulf. Rumours abounded that she received a PA payout to retire to the shadows. Some suggest she is receiving handsome payment from Al Jazeera - a channel that has regularly angered the PA. "I wouldn't put anything past Al Jazeera, and it's all turned into a bit of a movie," said the Fatah party's Zaki. (Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones)