As the Arab and Palestinian media went into the usual conspiracy-theory frenzy over yet another attempt to crack the mystery of the death of former PLO head Yasser Arafat, locals in Ramallah, his former city of residence, were not as excited about the “news.”
Arafat’s death is in the headlines again due to a recent al-Jazeera investigation, in which some of his personal items were transferred to a laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, in search for toxins which might point at poisoning as the cause of death. The tests seem to have revealed unusually high levels of Polonium, a radioactive substance, sparking major headlines internationally.
Yet a recent Ynet Hebrew-only story (07/04/12), canvassing reactions in Ramallah to the new developments in the 8-years on-and-off poisoning allegations, seems to suggest that the Palestinian public is simply not interested in the al-Jazeera story. Some are already convinced and need no further proof about the cause of death, while others have already moved on and are indifferent. Moreover, some residents were unusually candid in admitting that Palestinians are simply expected to blame Israel “automatically” and actual evidence does not really come into the picture.
Many of the reactions to the renewed al-Jazeera investigation were indifferent simply because local Palestinians felt like they already know the answer – Israel must have killed Arafat. For example, Maher from Ramallah said that:
There was nothing new in this investigation, so I do not understand what is the big deal. It was known that he was poisoned and clear to everyone who is behind this action.
Similar views were expressed by another local resident, Walid Mohammad:
It is true that al-Jazeera expressed doubts about the findings and a decisive answer to the question what was the cause of Arafat’s death was not given, but who holds Polonium? Russia, the United States and Israel. Russia did not want to destroy him and the United States objected to this – who’s left? Those who placed tanks in front of his window at the Mukata’a [Atafat’s Ramallah compound].
A local businessman, Adnan, also believed that there is “no smoke without fire.” He praised al-Jazeera’s credibility and expressed his confidence in the thoroughness of the investigation. When asked why Israel wasn’t explicitly blamed for the alleged poisoning he replied: “They [al-Jazeera] are smart. You could understand what is under the surface”.
But Adnan was particularly candid about the assumptions which shape Palestinian public opinion when he was asked his personal opinion about Arafat’s demise.
‘And what do you think?’ We asked. ‘I am Palestinian. And we’re already used to blaming Israel for everything automatically.’
It seems that with or without the al-Jazeera investigation the Palestinian public already reached a conclusion – one not based on expensive tests and fancy state-of-the-art European labs with authoritative scientists in white lab-coats, but rather on the old axiom that if something goes wrong, it must be Israel’s fault. Same old conspiracy theory, same old scapegoat, and al-Jazeera’s attempt to dress it up as a scientific investigation does not matter much for many.
Happily, Maher, Walid and Adnan were not the only voices in the Palestinian street. In what may be a more positive sign that perhaps old habits and differing narratives can one day be put aside and a two-state peace created, some Palestinians were just indifferent to the renewed investigation. For example Abed, a shopkeeper in one of Ramallah’s main streets, had this to say about the al-Jazeera report:
Khalas! [Enough!] Arafat is dead already and we live on. It is more interesting to look at beautiful women here on the street than on Arafat and the investigation that examined how he died.
(Incidentally, reports say that senior Israeli government figures were given information that Arafat was suffering from a form of leukaemia, but died as a result of a radical treatment he was given in France. Meanwhile, Barry Rubin takes issue with the oft-heard claim that Arafat died of AIDS).