As Palestinian President Yasir Arafat struggled for his life in a Paris hospital this week, his wife, Suha, was lashing out at other Palestinian leaders and being branded by the press as the “first lady from hell” for being power and money hungry. She reportedly is seeking to keep as much as $6.5 billion her husband squirreled away.
The 41-year-old Nablus-born Suha Arafat has been considered an outcast since she secretly married Arafat in the summer of 1990. He was 61; she was 27. According to interviews she has given over the years, Suha ran after Arafat, who had never married and often said he was “married to the Palestinian cause.” She also described her first years of marriage as lonely, and noted that her husband once compared her to former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcus after seeing her shoe collection.
Born in 1963 to a wealthy banker and a politically active mother, Raymonda Tawill, who ran a PLO-influenced news bureau in East Jerusalem, Suha graduated from Rosary Sisters’ School in Jerusalem. When Suha was 18, her mother used her connections with Arafat to obtain a scholarship for her at the Sorbonne in Paris. Suha lived there with her sister, the wife of the PLO’s ambassador to France, and met Arafat several times in 1987 and 1988. She even helped to arrange Arafat’s visit to Paris in 1989 and was later invited to work in Arafat’s office in Tunis.
Their secret marriage a year later was made public by Suha’s parents, who opposed the union and were upset by gossip that their daughter was Arafat’s mistress. Also opposing the marriage was Mohammad Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, a close associate of Arafat who actually campaigned against it. It was said that he wanted to perpetuate the myth of Arafat as the wandering, homeless hero, and that marrying a Christian woman (she converted to Islam for the wedding) who died her hair blonde, dressed in the latest French fashions and frequented nightclubs would destroy that image.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, Arafat and Suha moved to a modest two-story house in Gaza City. Armed Palestinian security officials were ever-present and Suha prevailed on her husband to build a third-floor for their bedroom. But it was reportedly so elaborately decorated that Arafat said it reminded him of a cabaret and usually slept on the first floor while she slept on the third.
She told one interviewer that Arafat once admonished her, saying: “Luxury is in your father’s banker’s home, not mine.”
Arafat continued to spend most of his life in his offices in Ramallah and Gaza, and Suha was ordered by senior Palestinian officials to refrain from any political activity. So Suha set up her own aid organization and worked trying to improve the status of women in Palestinian society.
In July 1995, Suha gave birth to their only child, Zahwa, named after Arafat’s mother, who died when he was 3. But instead of giving birth in Gaza, Suha flew to Paris, saying she would not bring her child into the world in a Gaza hospital, where she said sanitary conditions were “disastrous.” Those comments only served to anger Palestinians.
Suha returned to Gaza but flew to her mother’s home in Paris soon after Palestinian violence began in September 2000, a move that further alienated her from Palestinians. She did not see her husband from 2001 until he became deathly ill last month. Then she flew to his bedside and held his hand while he was placed on a helicopter for a trip that eventually landed him at Percy Hospital outside of Paris.
Suha may have been out of sight the last three years, but she was never totally forgotten. There have been press reports in both the Arab and Western media about her shopping sprees, articles that were reprinted and distributed as flyers. She is said to have driven around in expensive BMWs and lived in the ritzy Bristol Paris Hotel for $16,000 a night (she rented an entire floor). British newspapers have also pointed to Suha’s prime seats at Paris fashion shows.
And last year it was reported that she was receiving $100,000 a month from Arafat from the budget of the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this year, French prosecutors confirmed that they had launched a probe into money laundering charges against Suha that involved $11.5 million.
A furious Suha did not deny receiving the money but blamed the probe on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She claimed it was an attempt by Sharon to divert public scrutiny from an investigation of his own financial dealings.
“What’s wrong if my husband sends me some money?” she fumed. “I’m working here for the benefit of my people. … These funds arrived legally, and my husband and I are prepared to answer any questions about these funds and their sources.”
The International Monetary Fund has reportedly estimated that Arafat is the ninth richest world leader with a net worth of about $4.2 billion, and his will is said to put it all under Suha’s control. Forbes Magazine speculated that Arafat had control of $300 million.
Whether Arafat had control of that much money and whether Suha could gain access to it has led to much speculation. The Palestinian press has dubbed her “Miss Moneybags” and one unnamed Palestinian leader was quoted as saying that she was trying “to get her hands on the president’s personal fortune before he dies.”