Report links Arafat's death to poisoning; body likely to be exhumed
The Al-Jazeera report caused uproar in the Palestinian territories, rekindling unresolved questions about Arafat's death and theories that he had been killed by agents of Israel or by Palestinian rivals.
The New York Times
JERUSALEM — A potentially explosive re-examination of the circumstances behind the death of Yasser Arafat, the symbol of the Palestinian national struggle, on Wednesday galvanized Palestinian suspicions that he had been poisoned and led the Palestinian Authority to agree in principle to an exhumation of his remains, possibly within days.
Arafat's widow, Suha, called for the exhumation a day earlier in an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic channel, after it had reported that Arafat might have been poisoned with polonium, a rare radioactive isotope associated with KGB-style assassination intrigues.
Saeb Erekat, a close aide of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said by telephone that once the religious authorities and Arafat's relatives had given the go-ahead, an exhumation could take place "in the coming days."
Then, Erekat said, the Palestinians would seek an international inquiry into Arafat's death similar to the United Nations-backed tribunal that investigated the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
A thorough investigation of all aspects of the death of Arafat, in November 2004, was called for, Erekat said, because "It was not so long ago. Our memories are still alive."
The death of Arafat remains enveloped in mystery and contention. The Al-Jazeera report caused uproar in the Palestinian territories, rekindling unresolved questions about Arafat's death at the age of 75 and theories that he had been killed by agents of Israel or by Palestinian rivals.
Arafat fell ill in October 2004 and was transported by helicopter out of the Mukata, his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he had been under an Israeli army siege for more than two years. He was transferred to a French military hospital where he died about two weeks later of unannounced causes.
Though the hospital records were never made public, fueling speculation and rumors about the cause of death, they were obtained by The New York Times in 2005. The records showed he had died of a stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an underlying infection. The infection was never identified. The hospital found no traces of poisons.
Two Palestinian investigative committees have so far failed to produce any conclusive findings.
At a fractious convention of Abbas' Fatah Party in 2009, the first such gathering in 20 years, one point of consensus was the notion that Israel was responsible for the death of Arafat, the founder of Fatah. Delegates blamed Israel for having kept the leader under siege, and Fatah officials said they would continue to investigate the circumstances of his death, and suspicions that Israel had poisoned him.
Israel has always denied any involvement in Arafat's death.
"Ultimately all the documents surrounding Arafat's death are in Palestinian hands," a senior Israeli official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. "Instead of spreading conspiracy theories, the Palestinians could just make the documents public," he said.
Suha Arafat gave Al-Jazeera a copy of Yasser Arafat's medical records as well as personal effects including items of clothing he had worn close to his death, his toothbrush and his trademark black and white checkered kaffiyeh. Al-Jazeera said that it took the items for forensic testing to the best laboratories in Europe.
At the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, doctors found what they said were unusually high levels of polonium-210 in certain items.
Polonium became widely known after Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who became a critic of the Russian government, died in London in 2006 after he drank tea contaminated with the substance.
"I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids," Dr. Francois Bochud, the director of the institute, told Al-Jazeera.
Scientists at the institute said that further testing of Arafat's remains would be necessary before any determination that he had been poisoned.
Arafat's body was returned to Ramallah and was buried in a chaotic funeral in the courtyard of the Mukata. His remains now lie in a stately mausoleum, guarded by troops and visited by dignitaries and members of the public who come to lay wreaths.
The legacy left by Arafat is as confounding as he was in life. Revered by many as the revolutionary founding father of Palestinian nationalism, he was also reviled, particularly by many Israelis, who considered him a terrorist.
He was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in accepting the Oslo Accords, a blueprint for peace with Israel, but nearly 20 years later his promises of a Palestinian state remain unfulfilled. Corruption was also rampant under his leadership.
"We have moved from at least having the impression under Yasser Arafat that our national aspirations could be fulfilled to survival mode," said Zakaria al-Qaq, a political scientist at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem.