News that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat probably died of deliberate polonium poisoning is shocking, but not that surprising. In the murky world of Middle East politics, and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, such poisonings, assassinations and dirty tricks are all part of the game. And it is a game that has, in many respects, landed right on our doorstep, here in Ireland – of which more below.
It was thought that Arafat died of natural causes in 2004, but over a year ago, traces of the deadly agent Pollonium-210 were found on his clothes. Arafat's body was exhumed and examined by Swiss scientists and, although a definitive report has yet to be made, it now seems that the agent has been found. Pollonium was the poison apparently used by Russian agents to kill the dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
The charismatic but often shambolic Arafat would have had many enemies, including Palestinian and Arab rivals, not to mention his life-long enemy Israel.
(He was also mired in political corruption.) But Israeli officials have categorically denied any involvement in Arafat's death, even though their forces had surrounded his Ramallah headquarters for the 20 years before he was flown to a French hospital in 2004, where he died, aged 75. By that time, the Israelis regarded Arafat as a busted flush and were glad to be rid of him.
The wonder, at that stage is how Arafat had lasted so long. A guerrilla leader of the 1970s, he was responsible for the airline hi-jackings and other 'spectaculars' that brought the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to world attention. Eventually, he made the transition to a political settlement with Israel in 1993, but it was one that fell well short of the Palestinian ideal and was bitterly resented by Palestinian hardliners and by the more militant Hamas.
It was also resented by Arafat himself, especially when he saw the grudging manner of its implementation by Israel and soon Arafat was turning a blind eye to new terrorist attacks in Israel by Islamic militants, over which he had partial control. The Israelis lost patience and re-invaded the West Bank. The last straw was the audacious killing of Israeli politician Rehavam Ze'evi in Jerusalem, in October 2001.
Interestingly, the day before that assassination, Arafat was in, of all places Dublin, where he was drumming up support for his cause. And when he went home and faced encirclement in Ramallah, he must have wished he was back in Dublin, for there were few places in which he got such a warm welcome.
This was a part of long-term relationship. Bertie Ahern was especially friendly, as was, in an earlier era, Brian Lenihan Snr. As Foreign Minister, Lenihan made a famous statement in 1980 supporting Palestinian 'self-determination' and 'recognition of the PLO (the Bahrain Declaration), which led to the subsequent Venice Declaration by the EU. And since then Ireland, which sees parallels with our own historical situation and wants to support the underdog, has always pushed the EU to take a harder line in support of the Palestinians. The warm relationship continued and, on the day of 9/11, Arafat was in Gaza, in the company of the visiting Brian Cowen who cleverly urged Arafat to be seen giving blood on TV as a gesture to the besieged Americans.
But it's a relationship which infuriates the Israelis, who pointed to the parallels between Arafat and the outlawed IRA. Some even think it has contributed to a certain brazenness in Irish-Israeli relations. For example, in 2010, Israeli agents flagrantly used forged Irish passports to travel to Dubai and bump off a Hamas agent in a hotel room.
The passports details were swiped and doctored from existing persons, but the Israelis used such ridiculous made-up Oirish names than many wondered were they sending a message. There was even a link to an empty house in Elgin Road in Dublin owned by the brother of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It was right around from the Israeli embassy itself!
Foul play is always suspected in this world of cloak and dagger. In 2001, the then Palestinian representative in Dublin, Yousef Allan, died through monoxide poisoning in his house, also in Ballsbridge.
An inquest confirmed this, but many suspected he may have been poisoned. And his predecessor, Ahmed Halimeh, died in very suspicious circu-mstances in 2012 in South Africa where he was ambassador.
But who would have thought that the deadly world of Middle East vendettas would have connections to Ireland?