Arafat Stunned World by Starting Family

Published November 11, 2004

| Associated Press

A longtime bachelor who declared himself "married to the revolution," a then 62-year-old Yasser Arafat (search) stunned Palestinians when he wed his 28-year-old private secretary, Suha, in a secret ceremony in Tunisia in 1991.

The couple's daughter, Zahwa, named for Arafat's mother, was born in Paris in July 1995.

When Suha Arafat (search) first went to Gaza City with her husband in July 1994 — following the leader's return from a 26-year exile — few thought the Sorbonne-educated, stylishly coifed blonde partial to French haute couture outfits would settle down in the less-than-cosmopolitan Gaza Strip.

But she surprised critics by making a home there. She developed a public life of her own, opened institutes for sick and handicapped children and hosted foreign dignitaries.

In a 1999 interview with a French magazine, she described their starkly simple wedding: It took place in a PLO bunker with no white wedding dress or reception. She said that since then she had never spent an entire day alone with Arafat.

Arafat lived separately from his wife and daughter for the last few years. He was confined by Israeli troops to his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah during most of the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000. His wife and daughter moved to Paris after the violence erupted.

Even while together, the workaholic Arafat spent so little time at home that Zahwa, who speaks French and Arabic, said "Papa" when she saw an airplane, Suha Arafat told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview.

"I don't have a family life," she acknowledged. "But I chose this life. I knew it was going to be like this."

The daughter of West Bank journalist and political activist Raymonda Tawil (search), she was raised a Roman Catholic and converted to Islam before her marriage.

Suha Arafat caused a stir in 1999 by claiming Israel had poisoned Palestinians with gas and toxic waste, leading to an increase in cancer cases among Palestinian women and children. The remark caused an international uproar because she said it in a speech delivered in the presence of then-U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton. Clinton was criticized for hugging and kissing her after the speech and later denounced her.

Afterward, Arafat's wife kept a low profile. She and her daughter spent most of their time in a Paris apartment and she rarely spoke publicly.

In remarks to a Saudi woman's magazine in 2001, Suha Arafat said she hated Israel, opposed normal relations with Israelis and believed Mideast peace was unobtainable at present.

The magazine published pictures showing her in a traditional embroidered Palestinian dress, ironing the type of black-and-white checkered headdress that was her husband's trademark.

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