In the final months of his life, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lived defiantly in his presidential Muqata compound in Ramallah surrounded by Israeli tanks. The compound was without electricity, and the embattled Palestinian leader, blamed by the Israelis for sparking a violent "intifada" in late September 2000, reportedly dined nightly on cans of tuna fish in oil, which filled the air with a pungent odor. Aging and living under difficult conditions, it came as no surprise when he fell ill and was rushed to a Paris hospital in November 2004. The iconic leader died shortly thereafter, but the exact cause remained something of a mystery.
Fast forward nearly nine years, and the Qatar-based news service Al-Jazeera reported this week that Arafat may have been killed by a rare and highly radioactive element known as polonium. Famously, the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed by the same substance in London in 2006.
On its face, this has all the makings of a gripping espionage story. However, the plot has long been spoiled. Indeed, Al-Jazeera reported more than a year ago that tests conducted by a Swiss lab on Arafat's clothing contained "abnormal levels" of the radioactive substance.
At the time, Palestinians responded predictably. Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of the Palestinian committee in charge of investigating Arafat's death, declared: "We are accusing Israel of killing Yasser Arafat and poisoning him." Nasser al Qidwa, Arafat's nephew and head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, said: "We accuse Israel of killing Yasser Arafat by poisoning him with that lethal substance."
This week's news finally confirms (again) that traces of polonium were found. But even then, we're told not to read too much into the results. A representative from the Swiss body that conducted the testing cautioned, "We can't say that polonium was the source of his death... nor can we rule it out."
What's more intriguing, perhaps even more than the inconclusive cause of death, is the timing of the new report. The Palestinians and Israelis are currently engaged in high-stakes diplomacy under the auspices of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. News from the talks has been scant these last few months. The two sides, both prone to chronic leaking, have been uncharacteristically quiet. However, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas recently warned that the Israelis were not conceding enough to his liking. And Kerry himself is now warning of a possible third intifada if the talks fail.
In other words, diplomacy has reached a critical moment. And at just the wrong time, new reports recycle the allegation that Arafat, the founding father of the Palestinians, was murdered. With frustrations mounting in the West Bank over the diplomatic inertia, it's possible that the release of this report was intended to spark a new intifada – a new round of violence against Israel.
But the report may also have another intended effect: an "intra-fada" – unrest and discord among the Palestinians.
For polonium to take its deadly effect, it must be ingested. So, who placed a small particle of the substance in the Palestinian leader's food? Suha Arafat told Reuters she believed the polonium must have been placed by someone "in [Arafat's] close circle."
To put it mildly, an assassination carried out by someone within the political elite would damage the credibility of the Palestinian Authority. And it's not as if the Palestinian street needs another reason to dislike its leadership. Indeed, Abbas is four years past the end of his legitimate term, and the government has long been disdained for its political ossification and questionable economic practices. This led in no small part to a shocking victory by the terrorist group Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. These are issues I raise in my new book, State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State.
As al-Jazeera report whips up emotions for the second time in the West Bank, it's hard not to look at Qatar as the engine driving this. The tiny Persian Gulf state owns al-Jazeera, was also behind the "Palestine Papers," a wikileaks-style dump in 2011 of more than 1,600 leaked documents that embarrassed and undermined the credibility of the leadership in Ramallah.
Qatar, it should also be noted, is one of Hamas' top financial and political patrons. This is not inconsequential. Hamas has made it clear that it harbors a deep disdain for its political rivals in the West Bank. And if an intra-fada isn't it the cards, Hamas certainly wouldn't be opposed to another round of Palestinian violence against Israel – the other possible result of the polonium campaign.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).