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Sex and shopping: new twist in the saga of Mrs Arafat

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

The longest-running soap opera in Palestinian politics, the rumour-rich saga of Yasser Arafat's wealthy widow Suha, has been given a new lease of life with an official announcement that she has been stripped of Tunisian citizenship.

Mrs Arafat, 44, who has lived in Tunis since her husband's death in November 2004, is now reportedly in Malta after persistent but unconfirmed claims that she had secretly married Lahasn al-Trabulsi, the brother-in-law of the Tunisian President.

A terse bulletin in the official Tunisian Gazette earlier this month - not reported in the local media and giving no reason for what is a rare act by the Tunisian bureaucracy - said that "Tunisian nationality was withdrawn from Madam Suha Arafat... who was born in Al Quds [Jerusalem] on 17 July 1963."

Various blogs and websites have reported since last summer that Mrs Arafat had married the brother of her reportedly close friend Leila, wife of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, though Mrs Arafat, who lived in an up-market house in the Tunisian capital's Carthage district, has denied the story. The official notice made no mention of the Arafats' 12 year-old daughter Zawha, who also became a Tunisian citizen in 2006.

According to one predictable version of the rumour, Mr Trabulsi had been expected to marry Suha Arafat's sister but was attracted by the fortune which Mrs Arafat secured in fraught negotiations with Palestinian leaders as Mr Arafat lay dying in a coma in a Paris hospital.

Although some reports put her legacy as much higher, Mrs Suha was believed to have been promised a lump sum of £7m, with a further £800,000 being paid to her annually for nine years, after which she was due to receive a pension of £300,000 a year.

Mrs Arafat was often criticised for leading a luxurious life style in Paris in the years before her husband's death. As Yasser Arafat personally controlled some Palestinian Authority and PLO funds, he was accused of using these to support his wife's lavish lifestyle. Another unconfirmed local report said that the reason for her departure in Tunisia was a dispute with her business partners.

Born to a well-off Palestinian Christian family, and raised in Ramallah and Nablus, Mrs Arafat converted to Islam while working for the PLO leader during his exile in Tunis and secretly married Mr Arafat in 1990 while she was in her late twenties and he was already in his sixties.

In an astonishing outburst as her husband was dying in a Paris hospital three years ago, Mrs Arafat telephoned the Al Jazeera satellite channel to say that that a soon-to-arrive troika of top Palestinian leaders including the future President Mahmoud Abbas would not be welcome at his bedside and shouted to viewers: "Let it be known to the honest Palestinian people that a bunch of those who want to inherit are coming to Paris."

Using her husband's nom de guerre, she added: "I tell you they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive. He is all right and he is going home." But he was pronounced dead three days later, reportedly after a deal had been reached between Mrs Arafat and the then Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia over her legacy.

The London based Al-Hayat newspaper reported this week that it had reached Suha Arafat in Valleta, where her brother Ghabi al-Taweel serves as Palestinian ambassador to Malta, but that she had refused to comment.

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