International Papers

Suha’s Scream

Arafat’s wife cries conspiracy, and the international press follows the money.

Suha Arafat

As rumors continue to be more plentiful than facts concerning the condition of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the ailing—some say already dead—leader’s wife, Suha, is playing the role of his loyal protector to the hilt. The international press jumped all over the telephone interview she gave to the Al Jazeera satellite television network on Monday, in which she screamed that a trio of the Rais’ aides who were planning a trip to Paris were plotting to “bury Arafat alive.” Al Jazeera noted that “Some Palestinians have complained that Arafat’s wife gained too much power,” and added, “Suha Arafat has been living in Paris over the past four years and didn’t go to the West Bank or see her husband during that period.”

Newspapers in the Arab world, Israel, and the West have been focused on Arafat’s health, although no media outlet has succeeded in breaching the thick wall of silence Suha has put around her husband’s care. Over the weekend, various reports and guesses characterized Arafat as brain-dead, in a coma, sleeping, and recovering. Nobody seems to be taking seriously Suha’s insistence that he “is well and he is coming back to his homeland.” France’s Liberation reported over the weekend that only one of two tests necessary to classify a patient as “brain-dead” under French law had been carried out, and the second one was apparently being delayed intentionally.

Suha’s outburst was only the latest in a volley of accusations and counteraccusations that have the press relishing the murky details of the many power struggles that are under way. Al Jazeera published a report saying Arafat had signed a will leaving his fortune—which it estimated at $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion—to Suha’s family, but that top Palestinian officials insist the money belongs to the Palestinian people. The Ageof Australia reported that many Palestinians believe he is being kept alive artificially “only so that a vast hidden fortune in his control could be recovered. There also was speculation that Mr. Arafat was clinically dead but being kept on life support to ease the transition.”

The Daily Telegraph of Britain reported that a Palestinian legislator voiced concerns about the whereabouts of billions of dollars that had been under Arafat’s unsupervised control. The legislator called for Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s longtime financial adviser—and reportedly a business partner of Suha Arafat—who has been living in Paris in recent months, to be interrogated in Ramallah.

In addition to sorting out financial affairs and shoring up plans about who will take over from Arafat, negotiations about a burial spot for him are in full swing. Arafat has said he wanted to be buried near Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, but Israel has signaled it would not approve such a plan. In the only juicy quote issued by a senior Israeli official since Arafat’s health deteriorated last month, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told a TV interviewer, “He will not be buried in Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists.” Not surprisingly, the quote has been picked up by media outlets around the globe. Also not surprisingly, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “criticized ministers who had made public statements relating to Arafat’s condition, contrary to his request to exercise restraint in this regard.”

Haaretz also commented on the many considerations involved in choosing a burial site. Anywhere outside of Jerusalem could be interpreted an insult to the Palestinian leader, the paper wrote, but the family plot in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, where his father and sister are buried, could be acceptable, due to the Muslim tradition of burying people in family plots.