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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Suha Arafat's millions

If anything was guaranteed to annoy the Palestinians, it was a comment made by Yasser Arafat's wife after the birth of their daughter, Zahwa. As Suha Arafat proudly showed off the Palestinian leader's only child at the �1,100-a-night hospital in Paris in July 1995, she declared: 'Our child was conceived in Gaza, but sanitary conditions there are terrible. I don't want to be a hero and risk my baby.'

Her remarks highlighted the widening gulf between the Palestinian 'first lady' and her people - many of whom live on little more than �3 a day per family.

The spendthrift image of Mrs Arafat was further enhanced when French authorities launched an investigation into claims that $11.4 million (�6.22 million) had been transferred from Switzerland to two of her French bank accounts between July 2002 and 2003.

The sums were on top of an allowance of $100,000 (�54,500) which Mr Arafat, 75, sent his 40-year-old wife each month. Mrs Arafat and Palestinian representatives in Paris described the claims as Israeli propaganda.

Mrs Arafat, however, failed to deny the transactions outright in an interview with the London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat. 'Prime minister Ariel Sharon is responsible for this vicious leak,' she said. 'What's strange about the rais [president] sending money to his wife overseas, especially when I handle Palestinian matters and interests?'

Mrs Arafat was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy family. She spent her formative years in Nablus and Ramallah, where her Oxford-educated father was a banker. Her mother, Raymonda Tawil, an outspoken author, was frequently placed under house arrest by the Israeli authorities.

Mrs Arafat has always had strong connections with the French capital and spent much of her youth in Paris, staying at her mother's flat and reading politics at the Sorbonne.

She has lived in Paris full-time since 2000, ostensibly so that Zahwa - named after Mr Arafat's mother, who died when he was five - could receive treatment for leukaemia, although close friends suggest that she was also worried by the second intifada. At all events, until Friday's mercy mission, she had not returned to Ramallah and has been granted French citizenship.

In November last year, the American television network CBS investigated Mrs Arafat's way of life. The programme claimed that she lived on an entire floor of the exclusive Bristol Hotel in Paris at an estimated cost of �8,700 a night for more than a year. The hotel, however, claimed it had never seen her.

Last year, Mrs Arafat bought a multi-million pound flat in the chic 16th arrondissement, in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe and handy for the Champs-�ly�es. She owns another property in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

She is often seen in the front rows of Paris fashion shows, or shopping with the wife of the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and the sister of the King of Morocco. She favours the haute couture designer Louis F�raud and the upmarket shoe-maker Christian Louboutin. Her hair is expensively highlighted.