In November 2004, a sad but very familiar scene played itself out: A sick, 75-year-old man who had been living in squalor for several years after an extremely difficult life -- including a near-death experience in the Libyan desert -- finally passed away. Doctors at the Percy hospital in France determined he died of natural causes: a stroke caused by an unidentified infection. As is so often the case, human life ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
But, of course, this wasn't just any ailing and frail 75-year-old man. It was Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority, and national symbol of the Palestinian cause. This was the man who had overseen the revival of the Palestinian political and national identity, and who held a certain iconic status even for his most bitter Palestinian critics.
From the outset, there was a refusal to believe that such a "great man" could have died a squalid, mundane death. For many, his ending had to be heroic and romantic. He must have been assassinated. Anything less wouldn't do justice to his mythological, larger-than-life status. As early as November 2004, Palestinian journalist Maher Ibrahim wrote in the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Bayan, "Israeli Radiation Poisoning Killed President Yasser Arafat." A Palestinian grocer, Terry Atta, reflected public sentiment that has been widespread since Arafat's death when he recently told Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper, "We all knew it was poisoning."
As with the endless theories about "who killed JFK," the Arafat murder conspiracy theories reflect a natural human tendency to protect the mythic and the iconic from the prosaic: How could a giant like John F. Kennedy have simply been shot by a pathetic loser like Lee Harvey Oswald? Counterintuitively, narratives about grand conspiracies are reassuring, while random twists of fate can be deeply unsettling: Is reality really so terrifyingly arbitrary?
Some Israelis, such as Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission of Israel's embassy in Washington, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to suggest that their hated enemy was a "sexual deviant" who had died of AIDS. Conspiracy theories in all directions have never relented from the moment Arafat passed away, and Palestinian leadership bodies have established more than one commission of inquiry to discover "who killed Arafat?"
Enter Al Jazeera English. This week, with enormous fanfare, the Qatar-backed satellite channel released a TV special and series of articles reporting that a Swiss lab has found elevated traces of polonium 210 -- a chemical element more than 250,000 times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide -- on some of Arafat's possessions, including his trademark kaffiyeh headscarf, provided to the network by his widow, Suha. As the channel must have known, and probably intended, this "revelation" unleashed a veritable tsunami of speculation, virtually all of it utterly baseless.
In a manner reminiscent of Glenn Beck, the conspiracy-minded American talk-show host, the station, in effect, insists it is "only asking questions." But only the most naïve could doubt that the channel's managers were well aware their story would prompt an orgy of conspiratorial theorizing.
Millions of people now appear to be convinced that Arafat died of polonium poisoning, much like the former KGB agent turned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Many Arabs are blaming Israel. Others, following not particularly subtle hints in various aspects of Al Jazeera's coverage, are suspecting an inside job conducted by rivals within Fatah. And numerous Israelis, including some former officials, have been once again hinting at a "secret illness," as reported by Reuters correspondent Dan Williams on Twitter, obviously returning again to the utterly discredited AIDS theory.