Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian Authority chairman, shoots off her mouth. “I hate the Israelis,” she declares. “I oppose normalization with them. Israeli women have attempted to make contact with me and I rejected them. I am giving an unequivocal message to all Israeli women proposing help for our institutions: you are responsible for the problems our children have. How do you dare to offer donations?”
After long months of media abstention, Suha Arafat has opened her mouth.
She does this in the Saudi women’s magazine Saidati, and the comprehensive interview is accompanied by a variety of personal photographs of the chairman’s wife and her family. The pretext for the project is a festive one: Suha set out, for the first time in her life, to undertake the Haj – the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia.
Suha, for her part, takes advantage of the opportunity to attack the Israelis verbally; to emphasize her unique status as the wife of Yasser Arafat, while also calling attention to the price she has to pay for this status; and also to make clear she is against the peace process. “I was never happy with the way negotiations with the Israelis were conducted,” she discloses. “The way things are now, I do not believe we will ever achieve true peace.
“Peace is a lie. I have always had the inner conviction that this matter will not succeed. Therefore I rejected any proposal to cooperate. In response, whenever I traveled between Gaza and the West Bank, the Israelis would stop my car and force me to wait along with the ordinary people.”
Arafat also has something to say about the IDF: “Despite the fact that Israeli soldiers shot at our house in Gaza, and my daughter and I were the target, they only hit the top floor. I know my daughter and I are a political target, and for that reason we travel from place to place. But I am not afraid, because my lengthy experience of life under the occupation has made me strong. However, I am not trying to endanger myself needlessly, just so that people will say I am heroic.”
Since the embarrassing incident with Hillary Clinton, which occurred a year and a half ago, Suha Arafat has kept silent. During a meeting in Ramallah with the former U.S. President’s wife, the chairman’s wife said accusingly that “Israel has poisoned the Palestinian air and water in the Gaza Strip and caused thousands of cases of cancer.” Her comments caused a big stir in the United States and the Middle East. Suha for her part, decided to lower her profile. She is now in Paris for longer periods of time and in Gaza less, and takes care to stay away from journalists. “I decided to stay away because the light of the cameras does not only dazzle, it also burns. The further away I stay, the better it is for me,” she says.
Now she is giving a glimpse into her life – it is unclear what is just image and what is really true – during a visit to Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of Princess Jawahara, wife of King Fahd. Aside from the attack on the Israelis, she also refers to the circumstances surrounding her decision – as the daughter of a wealthy and distinguished Christian family from Ramallah, educated in Nablus – to convert to Islam.
“My husband, Abu Amar, convinced me to take this step,” she says. “The Islamic religion is familiar to me from my days at school in Nablus. I would remain in class during religion classes and studied the Koran, like everyone else. When my family discovered that I had converted to Islam, they reacted logically. For all of us the most important issue is the Arab national interest. It is a struggle I have signed up for.”
This enlistment led to sharp disagreements, Suha disclosed, between herself and her husband. In the end she asked for his permission to move to Paris. “Of course there are differences of opinion between us,” she says. “No one wins in arguments, but I am more aggressive. I argue only when I know what I want. It is hard to influence Arab men. The Arab male is not influenced by a woman. It goes in one ear and out the other.”
The differences of opinion and arguments between the couple also dealt with Suha’s criticism of senior PA officials. “I am frank, and when I encounter a phenomenon that seems to me unhealthy, I can’t remain silent,” she says, ‘especially when I encounter corruption. I expose the issue, and sign up to stop the corruption.
“For example, I strongly criticized the opening of the casino in Jericho. I am not pleased with this place, where people drink alcohol and play cards. And when I discover senior Palestinian Authority officials making a fortune in the casino, I oppose them with all my might. Naturally, these arguments create a lot of problems and tension. But my conscience is clear.”
Suha Arafat provides diplomatic replies to questions regarding her relationship with her husband, which has already been at the center of quite a few rumors. During the interview she says: “The disagreements between us have not had an adverse effect on our strong relationship. He knows that the purpose of my criticism is positive.” On the other hand, she declares that “He loves me more, because it was he who proposed marriage.” Another time she smiles: “I am not afraid Arafat will marry another wife at the same time he is married to me. He doesn’t have the time.”
In response to the question what kind of husband Arafat is, Suha replies: “Arafat is well-bred and knows how to respect women. He loves his home and daughter very much, despite the fact that he does not have enough time for her. He is a quiet man. When I become angry, he remains calm. He is very emotional, despite the fact that when he appears in public he seems tough.”
Suha tries to evade questions abut her lengthy stay in Paris with her daughter Zahawa, who is now in first grade. A portrait of the two of them was intended to refute rumors that the wife and daughter were forced to move to Paris due to a malignant disease that little Zahawa had. She defined the relationship between father and daughter as “a good relationship”. But she admits Zahawa sees her father mainly on television. “She admires Arafat,” she concludes.
According to her, Zahawa fills her day. “Since she is Arafat’s daughter, and we are fearful for her, she is protected. I wanted to give her a brother or sister, but the great responsibility I have for her has given me pause. I am with her all the time, take her to school, accompany her everywhere. I try hard not to spoil her, and teach her that she must make efforts to achieve things and not rely on the fact that she is Abu Amar’s daughter.”
Suha defines Arafat’s health as “good”. Regarding the tremors in his lips, she explains that “this is the result of air pressure on airplanes. Arafat flies a lot from place to place, he is under pressure, and it is no wonder that this situation has had an affect on him. But he is not ill. The Israelis spread rumors about this, and we ignore them.”
It seems Suha has a great deal to say about rumors. “My unique status also has a price,” she complains. “Every move you make brings a wave of rumors and criticism, mainly rumors spread by Israelis, because of their continuing hostility.
Suha takes advantage of the interview to refute another rumor, that she used her position as the chairman’s wife to make financial profit for herself and her family. “I have never been in trade,” she announces, “and I never thought about doing business. I knew that any business transactions I would be involved in would lead to rumors that I was taking advantage of my husband’s status.
“In place of business, I decided to ease the plight of the Palestinian woman. I succeeded, for example, in raising awareness against inter-marriage in Palestinian society, to prevent cases of handicapped children. I put pressure on Arafat to help us legislate a law that would oblige couples to undergo pre-marital medical testing. Despite his many occupations, he found the time to handle this issue.”
In conclusion, Suha discloses that her best friends are Queen Rania of Jordan and the wife of the president of Tunisia, “because we lived there many years and she was very close to us.”
In response to the question whether she suffered in exile in Tunisia, she says: “We suffered a great deal, but we are also suffering in Gaza, we feel here too that we are living in exile. There is nothing that can be done, because we are still under the occupation.”
This appeared on the May 3, 2001 edition of Yediot Aharonot