Secrets in Ramallah Tomb?


Usually tight-lipped about targeted assassinations, Israel recently has gone public. Why the sudden openness? The answer may -- or may not -- lie buried in a tomb in the West Bank.

On Nov. 1, Israel acknowledged involvement in the death of Khalil al-Wazir -- better known as "Abu Jihad" -- in 1988.

Actively involved in organizing militants against the Israelis in Gaza, becoming a trusted aide to Yasser Arafat, joining the Muslim Brotherhood and becoming a founder of Fatah -- a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization -- Abu Jihad was shot in his Tunis home on April 16, 1988.

Although the Israelis were suspected, no evidence of their involvement ever surfaced.

The Israeli commando who said he killed Abu Jihad, Nahum Lev, recounted the raid in an interview just before his death in 2000: "I shot Abu Jihad. I shot him with a long burst of fire. I was careful not to hurt his wife. Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation."

Censored for 12 years for national security reasons, the Lev interview was released in November.

Two weeks later, in an acknowledgement that initiated an eight-day war between Israel and Hamas, Israel announced it had targeted and killed Ahmed Jabri, head of Hamas' military wing, in the Gaza Strip for his involvement in carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel.

In tracking down, one by one, and killing all eight Palestinian militants involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, which claimed the lives of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, and in killing several Iranian nuclear scientists more recently, Israel never acknowledged involvement. Why now?

Last August, a formal complaint to reopen an inquiry into the cause of death of Yasser Arafat at a French military hospital in 2004 was filed with the French government.

For two years prior to Arafat's death, the long-time Palestinian leader remained holed up by the Israelis in his Ramallah compound in the West Bank. After suffering a stroke and showing no improvement, Israel allowed him to be flown to France, where he died two weeks later at age 75.

Although doctors determined the stroke was caused by a bleeding disorder triggered by an infection, the infection's source was never identified.

Eight years after Arafat's death, his widow -- Suha Arafat -- turned clothing last worn by her husband over to the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera to determine his cause of death. In July 2012, al-Jazeera initiated an investigation, turning the items over to a Swiss lab, which said they were tainted with high levels of the very toxic radioactive isotope polonium-210. This was the same substance that gained international attention in 2006 when determined to be the cause of death for Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and critic of Russia President Vladimir Putin.

Permission was given to exhume Arafat's body from its Ramallah tomb. At dawn Nov. 27, tissue samples were removed and distributed among Russian, French and Swiss experts to determine whether Arafat had been poisoned, despite poison being ruled out by Arab and French doctors attending him in 2004.

His wife had denied permission for an autopsy then, preventing confirmation of leaked medical reports of a liver problem which, obviously, would have undermined Arafat's image among Palestinians if found to be alcohol-related.

While finding traces of polonium-210 would strongly support a claim of poisoning, the substance decomposes rapidly, making it less likely to be found in a deceased's tissues -- or clothing -- years later.

But Israeli actions suggest a concern something may be found, therefore, causing them to lay the groundwork for acknowledging their involvement in Arafat's death as well? Is the timing of Israel's acknowledgement in the deaths of Abu Jihad and Ahmed Jabri an effort to blunt accusations of possible involvement in Arafat's death?

A positive poisoning report doesn't necessarily implicate the Israelis as two other options are possible: accidental exposure or intentional poisoning by Palestinian political rivals.

Detection of polonium-210 is "a key indication of a nuclear weapons program in its early stages." Arafat had no such known access but an associate who did could have contaminated him. Accidental exposure also could come from polonium-210 known to power monitoring devices used in conducting espionage.

Involvement in Arafat's death by political rivals has also been alleged, especially since a "blood feud" was avoided months later when a relative making claim to succeed Arafat was killed. Interestingly, Arafat's treating physician was denied access by Sura Arafat during his illness.

As Arafat spent his last two years in Ramallah, one of these two options would seem more feasible.

In any event, since Sura Arafat is eager to raise the issue, possibly stirring up anger among Palestinians should results prove positive for poisoning, asserting blame against Israel despite other possible protagonists, another investigation should be launched into how Sura Arafat benefitted from her husband's death -- at the Palestinians' expense.

Upon his death, Arafat was among the richest men in the world -- riches gained leading people who were among the world's poorest.

As Yasser Arafat lay dying, Sura Arafat, who lived in Paris and hadn't seen her husband for three years, rushed to his bedside. Speculation was the visit wasn't to profess her love but to obtain banking information and codes to receive a piece of his vast wealth, estimated at $11 billion.

In return for sharing this information with the Palestinian Authority, she receives a $22 million annual payment. The payments continue despite periodic PA claims of "insufficient funds" to make its payroll.

As Sura Arafat seeks to hold someone accountable for her husband's death, so too should she be held accountable for ownership of wealth belonging to the Palestinian people.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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