Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have died after being poisoned by polonium, a new investigation suggests. His widow is now certain his death was not natural, and wants his body exhumed for further study.
The Palestinian Authority has already agreed to give its permission to the procedure, saying it will cooperate with anyone interested in establishing the cause of death. The Israeli government also has to give its formal permission to take bone samples out of the West Bank.
A nine-month investigation conducted by Al-Jazeera has concluded that Arafat’s personal belongings contained abnormally high levels of polonium, a rare and highly radioactive element. The items, including his clothing, his toothbrush, and even his iconic kaffiyeh, were supplied to Al-Jazeera by his widow, Suha Arafat. They were then analyzed at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported (unnatural) polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids,” said Dr. Francois Bochud, the director of the institute.
Scientists found that the amount of polonium on some of Arafat’s belongings was ten times higher than that on control subjects. For example, his urine-stained underwear contained 180 millibecquerels (mBq) of polonium, compared to a control subject’s count of 6.7 mBq. Arafat’s toothbrushes also had an elevated polonium level of 54 mBq.
The uncovered traces of polonium, however, are mere fractions of what could have been the cause of Arafat’s death. The polonium-210 isotope has a half-life of 138 days, meaning half of the substance decays every four and half months. Given that Arafat died almost eight years ago, the current amount of polonium present would be less than one two-millionth of the original amount.
Additional tests indicate that most of the polonium in Arafat’s belongings was “unsupported,” meaning it came from unnatural sources.
Doctors in Lausanne also ruled out other possible causes of Arafat’s death. At one time or another, there were claims he had died from leukemia, cirrhosis of the liver, and even AIDS.
“There was no liver cirrhosis, apparently no traces of cancer, no leukemia,” Dr. Patrice Mangin, the head of the Institute of Legal Medicine at the Lausanne University, stated to Al-Jazeera. “Concerning HIV, AIDS – there was no sign, and the symptomology was not suggesting these things.”
The conclusions were based on documentation, rather than firsthand examination of bodily fluid samples. Scientists in Lausanne hoped to study samples of blood and urine taken from Arafat at the Percy Military Hospital in France shortly before his death, but the hospital stated that it had destroyed them.
“I was not satisfied with that answer,” Suha Arafat said. “Usually a very important person, like Yasser, they would keep traces – maybe they don’t want to be involved in it?”
Several of the doctors that treated Arafat also refused to discuss his case, saying it was considered a “military secret.”
Nevertheless, Suha Arafat is satisfied that at least some light on what killed her husband has been shed.
“We got into this very, very painful conclusion, but at least this removes this great burden on me, on my chest,” she explained. "At least I’ve done something to explain to the Palestinian people, to the Arab and Muslim generation all over the world, that it was not a natural death, it was a crime.”
Arafat was the founder of the Fatah movement, and became the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the principal political organization of the Palestinians, in 1967. The Arafat-led PLO was hostile towards Israel throughout most of the next two decades, but in 1993, Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Peace Accords, establishing Palestinian self-government. Arafat was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 1996.
Negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel largely broke down with the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. In 2002, the Israeli army besieged Arafat in his Ramallah compound, preventing him from leaving it for the next two years. In October 2004, Arafat vomited during a meeting, with doctors saying he contracted influenza. However, his condition rapidly deteriorated, and Israel eventually allowed him to be transported to the Percy Military Hospital in France, where he died on November 11, 2004.
In the days before his death, Arafat suffered severe diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss, all of which are signs of polonium poisoning. The same symptoms were exhibited by former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died from polonium poisoning in 2006.