- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Yasser Arafat, Palestinian leader for the last 40 years, lies dying in a Paris hospital surrounded by his young wife and two mysteries: What is his ailment, and where are the billions of dollars Mr. Arafat is said to have stashed away?

Ten days into what is turning out to be tragic for the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians anxiously following every turn of events in Paris, the two great mysteries remain unsolved: What is ailing their leader, and where is the money?

The answer to the first question may be known by Mr. Arafat’s wife, Suha, though under French medical privacy laws she has so far refused to divulge what may ail her 75-year-old husband. Palestinian authorities, however, did reveal Tuesday Mr. Arafat had a cerebral hemorrhage.

This is still more tragic for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who remain glued to their television sets as they follow every development amid mounting anxiety and uncertainty over their future. The lack of an apparent Arafat successor and the political vagueness surrounding the Palestinian territories help keep tension at an all-time high.

Adding to the apprehension is the ambiguity about Mr. Arafat’s health and the conflicting news reports from France that announced the Palestinian leader’s premature death several times, only to be denied minutes later.

“I can’t believe that Arafat could die. He has not yet achieved his dreams and the dreams of his people,” said Mohasen Hamada, a Gaza cellular phone shopkeeper, as his tears welled.

The secrecy about their president’s illness continues perturbing Palestinians. In 10 days, no word has leaked regarding what may be killing Mr. Arafat. There were rumors that he may have blood poisoning, that he had cancer or his food was poisoned.

There were even spiteful rumors the Palestinian leader was dying of AIDS. None of these has proven true.

In a televised news conference in Paris on Tuesday Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath denied rumors of cancer and other illnesses, saying only, “The president is very ill.”

His French doctors have confirmed the Palestinian leader’s health has deteriorated and he has gone into a “deeper coma.”

While the exact causes of Mr. Arafat’s illness may be unknown — at least to the general public — his lifestyle for the last 25 years, and particularly the last three, during which he was under virtual house arrest in his Ramallah headquarters, have certainly not helped.

Mr. Arafat kept a strenuous schedule and a poor diet, typically working into the early morning hours. During his many years of living on the edge, he often slept in a different location every night, as he did in Beirut. More recently in Ramallah, the Palestinian leader lived in the most Spartan conditions. Hygiene was minimal in his Muqata’a compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, with lack of fresh air in his living quarters. And, though Mr. Arafat does not smoke, he was perpetually surrounded by people who did.

The second mystery, the missing money, is as bizarre as the secret illness. Some reports have Mr. Arafat diverting between $1 billion and $6 billion into secret portfolios, a huge sum given the size and economic product of the Palestinian territories.

U.S. officials have estimated Mr. Arafat’s personal investments to be between $1 billion and $3 billion, scattered in a number of Swiss, Malaysian and other secret bank accounts around the world and stocks and investments in private companies. One report even has Mr. Arafat owning airline stock.

What seems to be public knowledge, however, is the amount of money Mr. Arafat’s wife, Suha, receives. Suha, who lives in Paris’ posh 16th Arrondissement with the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa, receives a $100,000 monthly stipend from the Palestinian budget.

Indeed, were Mr. Arafat’s situation and its effect on the Palestinian people not so tragic, it could provide all the trappings of a cheap soap opera. The older family leader lies dying in a hospital bed, his lifelong companions and political associates trying to see him one last time. There is the much younger, blond but mischievously devious wife seeking revenge for how she was treated by those associates and forced into exile — albeit a golden one. Then there is that little matter of the funds stashed somewhere — $1 billion to 6 billion.

Sad enough, though, this is a real drama. The victims who will end up most affected will as always be the Palestinians.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International. UPI’s Gaza correspondent Saud Abu Ramadan contributed to this article.

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