Arafat Poisoned? A Locked-Door Mystery Goes Forensic

The Palestinians believe the Israelis did it; the Israelis say they didn't. Even if more evidence of polonium is found, the mystery is likely to last a very long time.

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Palestinian Authority / AP

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his wife Suha hold hands prior to Arafat's departure from his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Oct. 29, 2004. He died two weeks later in France.

Correction appended: July 8, 2012

Among the few authorized uses of polonium 210 is an industrial application: removing static. A tiny amount of the radioactive compound is seated in a device attached to steel machinery spinning exceedingly fast. The potent isotope keeps a dangerous charge from accumulating and erupting. In the wake of al-Jazeera’s report that unusually high levels of the substance were found in the personal effects of Yasser Arafat, one assumption making the rounds is that Israeli agents used it to remove the dangerous nuisance — the static — that the Palestinian leader had become four years into the second intifadeh and 10 years after the crushed promise of the Oslo accords.

“Not the whole world has access to nuclear elements,” said Arafat’s widow Suha, who submitted her late husband’s toothbrush, stained underwear and other belongings to a respected Swiss lab for examination. She stopped short of flatly accusing Israel, but she took the next step to ascertaining the cause of death: authorizing the exhumation of Arafat’s remains for further testing. At the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, Arafat’s successors promptly endorsed the move.

(LIST: Yasser Arafat — Top 10 Nobel Prize Controversies)

The hope is that submitting what’s left of Arafat’s body to tests — bone marrow can be telling — might show conclusively that the radioactive poison was in his system and not only on clothes that skeptical Israelis say may have been tampered with. That contention was supported by a report in Le Monde that French officials scanned Arafat’s urine for radioactive particles at the time and found none. (The article is here, the Google translation here.) A clear new fact would be most welcome. Al-Jazeera’s exclusive report may be the only scrap of new information to emerge in the eight years since Arafat’s mysterious demise, but it has served chiefly to refuel the engine of conspiracy theories that propels conversation in the Arab Middle East.

When he fell ill, Arafat was flown to France, where he died in a military hospital on Nov. 11, 2004, of causes that remain unknown, something not entirely unusual for a man of 75.  Until this week, the most suspicious tidbit about the case was the absence of a routine test for AIDS, which some Israelis say was what killed him. The evidence of polonium, which famously eliminated the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London two years later, emerged only after the Swiss lab screened his belongings for evidence of poison.

“It took them eight years to discover this? How can this be?” asks Ibtisam Ghader, 43, a pedestrian on a downtown street in Ramallah, a few blocks from Arafat’s airy tomb, where uniformed guards stand vigil. “With all the technology in the world, how and why did it take this long? I believe someone is trying to hide the truth. But with this new story enshallah the truth will be revealed.”

(MORE: In Memoriam: Yasser Arafat)

Unprompted, she adds, using Arafat’s popular nickname: “The Israelis were behind this shameful act. Who else, and from where could they have gotten the substance to poison Abu Amr?”

Israel denies the charge, pretty much flatly. Publicly, officials noted that by the time of his death, the PLO chairman had himself been rendered nearly inert, holed up in the last building still standing in his Ramallah government compound, with Israeli tanks rumbling outside 24 hours a day. Dov Weisglass, chief aide to Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, told an Israeli radio station the government “didn’t think his physical extermination would help.”

Privately, Israeli officials hold to the same general line. There have been none of the winks and nudges that follow reports of assassinations that its officials (sometimes being quoted by name) go so far as to publicly welcome. The Hebrew-language press has repeated reports that senior Israeli officials more than once discussed trying to kill Arafat — accounts that security sources confirm to TIME. But officials said the suggestions were always rejected.

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Palestinians nonetheless believe nothing else. The only debate on the Ramallah streets this week was whether the Israeli security services — which routinely and relentlessly solicit ordinary Palestinians to work as informants — used a member of Arafat’s inner circle to deliver the fatal dose. At the time he fell ill, Israeli armor had pinned the Palestinian leader inside the rubble of Ramallah’s muqataa complex for more than a year. The Israelis sent in food and decided who would visit. But poisoning Arafat’s chicken and rice was problematic, Israeli officials noted: Palestinians often eat from a communal plate, and if everyone had their own plate, the PLO chairman was famous for pushing handfuls of his serving toward the mouths of visitors, insisting they share.

Still, a fatal dose could have come in the form of a pill or drink.  (Litvinenko swallowed his in a cup of tea served at a London luxury hotel.) And the list of possible suspects extends beyond trusted aides to the diplomats and other guests Israel permitted to visit the trapped leader. “Look, the Israelis did not enter the room he was in, so it must have been a jasus [Palestinian agent of Israel] or a foreigner who came to visit him at the time,” surmises Safa Ismiel, 27, of Nablus, a city north of Ramallah in the West Bank. But all that assumes the person delivering a dose was aware of what he or she was doing.

It’s a locked-room mystery of the first water, albeit one with rubble, tanks and the smashed carcasses of automobiles piled up outside the room. But even if the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne finds polonium 210 in Arafat’s remains, that would answer only what killed him. Unless the isotope carries a forensic signature of the sort that never emerged in the Litvinenko case, there’d still be the question: Whodunit?

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal/Ramallah and Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv

Correction: The original version of this story said that Al Jazeera paid the Swiss lab to screen Arafat’s belongings. The lab performed the procedure pro bono.

MORE: Palestinians Champion Jesus’ Birthplace to Boost Statehood Bid

49 comments
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Bran Deditems
Bran Deditems

I'm not surprised that they are blaming Israel but I just don't get why they are doing the tests now, after he has already been burried for years? There have been conspiracies since he died. You would think they would have thought to look for polonium when he died.

sonic91
sonic91

It could only be US and Israel. 

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  More likely te Arabs themselves.  No one kills more Arabs than the Arabs.  They even kill their own daughters and sisters for "

honour", those savages.

BillyPierce1
BillyPierce1

Israel had no interest in killing him.  He wasn't a threat.  Hamas...  now that was a threat to both Israel and Arafat.  And who might have supplied radioactive materials to Hamas?  Well, who supplies missles, guns, explosives, ect.?  Iran.

BillyPierce1
BillyPierce1

I looked it up and yes...  if he was poisoned, the polonium would have decayed by now and the test would not be positive.  So why were the tests positive?  Evidence tampering, I presume.  I have not seen a source or chain of custody story on the clothing that was tested.  It likely came straight from interested Palestinian parties.

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

If Ara Fat was poisined,  I wish we could identify the person who poisioned him - - so we could award that person a great big medal!  Old Liver-Lips Arafat deserved killing more than just about anyone you could think of.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  Anyone know if Madame Arafat still rents an entire floor of a luxury hotel in Paris?

pat mourassa
pat mourassa

Jews have been murdering people for a long time,and they become exceedingly good at it,they are always the victims never the perpetrator.

then again if you go around believing that you so call God chosen people,how can you do any wrong.

If Jews are God,s chosen people you know what,i,d rather be on Satan,s side.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

I went to Jewish

school and never heard this. 

“Chosen”:  By half the

world.  Jews were (and are) very few .  Today 14 million in 7 billion.  Some 2,000 years ago every people, every

family had their own religion and gods. 

Today 2 billion Christians cose a Jewish Saviour.  And 1,500 years after Judaism, 700 after Jew

Jesus, an Arab in Arabia invented a new religion based on......  On the religion of the Incas?  Of some people in Africa?  Vodoo? 

Aztecs?  Druids?  No, on Judaism and Christianism.  All “prophets” in the Kordan are Jewish

prophets, patriarchs, kings, rabbis.... 

Moses, David, Solomon, Isayah, Jesus, etc.  All chosen by that Arab from Arabia....  

Dan1313
Dan1313

Ahhhh yes...it must be those darn murdering Jews....you really should talk to a professional about your irrational fear.  And way to keep spreading misinformation about the truth behind what "chosen" means.  Here is a hint...it has nothing to do with superiority over people.

Paul Mitchell
Paul Mitchell

bottom line he is dead and that's a good thing.

unfatcat
unfatcat

I just can't get over what a nice looking man he was.

snowdogg
snowdogg

 The beard makes the man.

DARinDC
DARinDC

So does it not matter to anyone that Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days?

rbeccah
rbeccah

Salafists are telling Muslims to avoid tomatoes because the arrangement of the pulp supposedly forms a Christian cross when sliced open.  It's no wonder these people believe any outrageous lie they're told.  They certainly don't want to believe their Arab hero died of AIDS, which is most likely what killed him.

guanta22
guanta22

 It's one thing to disagree about the conclusions of the investigation into what caused Arafat's death and it's another thing to flat out lie and say something that is false, which is what you're doing. Al Jazeera posted on their website Arafat's medical documents which show that the French doctors performed two HIV tests on Arafat when he arrived there, and both tests came back NEGATIVE. There's no dispute or confusion here. Anyone who continues to claim Arafat had HIV/AIDS is lying. Period.

DARinDC
DARinDC

So I guess we can ignore that Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days, meaning it was placed on his clothing this year.

Jose
Jose

I'M BETTING THAT ISRAEL POISONED HIM. 

snowdogg
snowdogg

 Polonium has 33 known isotopes, all of which are radioactive. They have atomic masses that range from 188 to 220 u. 210Po (half-life 138.4 days) is the most widely available. 209Po (half-life 103 years) and 208Po (half-life 2.9 years) can be made through the alpha, proton, or deuteron bombardment of lead or bismuth in a cyclotron.

Guest
Guest

Can you blame the Palestinians for suspecting Israel?  They do everything they can to make life as miserable as possible for the Occupied Territories.

thegreywolfe
thegreywolfe

You're right-- the Palestinians do everything they can to make life in the Disputed Territories miserable for themselves and everybody else.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  Can you point on a map those occupied territories?  And from whom were they occupied, can you name the country?

CriticalThinking77
CriticalThinking77

 I'M BETTING YOUR CAP LOCK KEY IS STUCK OR YOU'RE JUST AN ANNOYING INTERNET COMMENTER.

edwardteller2000
edwardteller2000

They should have had a burial at sea by rolling his corpse off the deck of the 

MS Achille Lauro

stevenewman
stevenewman

The terrorist Arafat died of an AIDS-related blood disease.  Simple as that.  If the Israelis wanted to poison Arafat they would not have used polonium because it would be obvious who did it.  The Russians used polonium because they wanted to frighten their overseas critics.

Danny Miller
Danny Miller

Time, come on, you're "the news".

It's impossible for any test to show Po-210 at this point, it has a halflife of 138 days, no amount of freezing or formaldehyde of a sample will change that at all, it's more than 20+ half-lives.

By now, any Po-210 from a "poisoning" would have decayed to 0.000056% of its original level.  Po-210 exists in the biosphere (and cigarette smoke) in quantities which, while very very small, are STILL greater than this.  So assuming the test alleged test actually "detected" anything, it couldn't be from a poisoning dating back to 2004 or earlier, it would be more recent Po-210 contamination.

Po-210 decays into Pb-206, which is stable.  However, Pb-206 is an isotope which is already 24.1% of the isotopic content of all naturally occurring lead.  The Litvinenko poisoning was approx 10 micrograms, or 1/2000th of a grain of rice.  Adding additional Pb-206 from the fate of the sort of quantity of Po-210 needed to poison someone would NOT significant compared to the amount of naturally occurring Pb-206, nor will it be a significant change in the balance of Pb-206 vs the other isotopes in lead.

Therefore, the allegation that Arafat's personal effects "tested positive for polonium-210" at this point in time is either grounded in bad science or simply outright fraud.  And anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge can see that.

Winston Blake
Winston Blake

Arafat had AIDS.

He liked little boy prostitutes.

bbieker
bbieker

good god.   Of course it depends how much you start with as to whether it's gonna be detectable or not.    How this ridiculous argument keeps making the round (and getting "liked") says a lot about how many people are looking for the truth that suits them, rather than the truth

Danny Miller
Danny Miller

I'm saying you can objectively bust any scientific value in a "test" for Po-210 20+ half-lives down the line.  

Heck, maybe he WAS poisoned with Po-210.  How should I know?  All I know for sure is that *I* didn't poison him.   Po-210 poisoning is possible, it's a real thing.  However, there is no other evidence that he died of anything but natural causes, it doesn't really fit the profile of radiation poisoning. 

All I can say is that a "test" for Po-210 on his personal effects (or his remains) years after he died has absolutely no scientific value, and anyone with any scientific background can tell you that.  It's bunk.  You might as well cite a testimony from a "ghost only you can see" as your proof.  

Nothing will stop Po-210 from decaying to levels commonly present in the environment within a few years, and there are no residual products which would indicate the prior presence of Po-210.  "It depends on how much you start with"- well, the Litvinenko poisoning was estimated at 10ug.  Yes, if the initial amount was 1,000,000 time greater than that, some amount might still be detectable at this point.  But that would not only have killed him within days, with radically different symptoms, and probably give a lethal dose to anyone around him.   A sample of that amount- 1 gram- would exhibit enormous self-heating, and I've no idea if quantities like that even exist.

Meanwhile, trace amounts of Po-210 are common in the air (due to decay of radon gas), or tobacco smoke.   Even if you did "detect a high level" on a surface, there's no scientific reasoning to believe that it might have been a residue from a 1,000,000x greater contamination 8 years prior.

Winston Blake
Winston Blake

AIDS from boy prostitutes... 

Arafart was a pedophile.

BillyPierce1
BillyPierce1

Looked it up.  Danny's right.  After about 2 years (4 half-lives,)  radioactive polonium would not be detectable.  It has been 8 years since Arafat died at age 75.  If they found polonium, it would have to have been planted much more recently.

kancamagus
kancamagus

 Is this really necessary? When a light-bulb burns out anywhere in the

Arab world, Israel must be responsible!  This view of the world will not

change no matter what this "investigation" shows. If anyone had a

reason to  kill Arafat, it seems to me it would be the Palestinians - decades of  feckless "leadership" that got them nothing. Suha, on the other hand, seems to be doing fine.

kancamagus
kancamagus

Is this really necessary? When a light-bulb burns out anywhere in the Arab world, Israel must be responsible!  This view of the world will not change no matter what this "investigation" shows. If anyone had a reason to  kill Arafat, it seems to me it would be the Palestinians - decades of  feckless "leadership" that got them nothing. Suha, on the other hand, seems to be doing fine.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

We already know that Yassar was toxic, but has anyone tested to see if Suha is radioactive?

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Sorry Karl, but its not a mystery, but a sit-com farce of the lowest order.

Al-Jazeera and the Palestinians are screaming about poison.  Yet, no one is doing even a cursory glance at Arafat's medical condition during the years prior to his death. 

As early as 2002, there were public news reports of his faltering health. 

In 2003, there was a big dustup over some mystery surgical procedure that Arafat needed to have desperately.  He was told he needed to go abroad to a modern hospital, but was concerned that he would not be allowed to return to Ramallah.  In the end, they built a surgical unit by his office, and flew in top-surgeons who completed the procedure - without mentioning once, what it was they actually did. 

During that episode, Arafat was seen by nearly a dozen physicians, including Egyptian and Russian doctors as well as being attended by his own long-term personal doctor. 

To date, no one has released those medical files. 

In addition, Arafat's own family medical history, noting that both his brother and sister died of colon cancer within a year of his passing.  

Indeed, just looking at Arafat you could see medical issues long before his trip to France.  His skin was jaundiced, a condition noted in the medical files.  That is not a sign of polonium poisoning.  When one looks at the photos of Alexander Litvinenko his is bald - his hair falling out from the radiation, and had skin color at one point that was blue - again due to the radiation.  Arafat, as we see in the photo above, has his hair. 

What's more, when Arafat was in the French military hospital, he was not only examined by a team of doctors checking for normal medical symptoms, but was examined and tested by poison control specialists - including tests for radiation poisoning.   All this was mentioned in the medical reports released by al-Jazeera. 

Neither posion of a chemical type or radiological was found. 

However, as soon as Arafat was dead and buried, his nephew, Palestinian diplomat Nasser al-Kidwah, was screaming bloody murder about how Arafat was assassinated.  This has gone on for eight years - despite Mr. Kidwah's possession of Arafat's medical records. 

Now though, when the medical files are released, and this so-called investigation of Arafat's clothing is being conducted, there have been calls to dig up the body and conduct an autposy.  Surprise - Surprise, Kidwah doesn't think an autopsy needs to be done. 

The truth is, something stinks to high heaven here in all of this.  It appears that it took eight years to come up with this scam.   The amount of Polonium alone that was 'found' in the test, is still magnitudes higher than normal scans - despite the material going through a period of 20 halflives.  This would indicate that the quantity that was given to Arafat was extraordinarily high.  Yet, nothing was detected, and subsequently there was no radiation elsewhere.   An investigation like this calls for Mr. Bean, not Sherlock Holmes. 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

If someone did poison Arafat, they did the world a favor.

stevenm1969
stevenm1969

Not surprising the Palestinians would automatically suspect the Israelis of something like this, since they tend to make life as miserable as possible for the Occupied Territories. 

kancamagus
kancamagus

The Israelis do what they can to prevent Palestinian lunatics (or, as they're locally known, "martyrs") from trying to kill them.  Israeli interests are not served by making Palestinians  miserable, and they would much prefer to live alongside a prosperous, peaceful neighbor. No one is more responsible for the misery of the Palestinians than Hamas. They're the ones whose actions resulted in security walls, checkpoints, blockades, etc. Just say these magic words, and all your troubles are over: "Israel has a right to exist."

stevenm1969
stevenm1969

That's a pretty pathetic apology for Israeli colonization and oppression of Palestinians. 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

You hit the nail on the head, the Palestinians themselves do indeed "tend to make life as miserable as possible for the Occupied Territories," for sixty years buying weapons instead of investing in their own people.

thegreywolfe
thegreywolfe

@  stevenm1969:

Do you even know what the word "Apartheid" means?

For Israel to have an "Apartheid regime" over the Palestinians would require the Palestinians to be Israeli citizens. Israeli Arabs do not suffer from any kind of Apartheid. Your statement would make the Allied treatment of German civilians until the signing of a peace treaty equivalent to Apartheid, too.

It's your post (and lack of understanding) that's B.S.

BillyPierce1
BillyPierce1

Have you ever been to Israel?  There are Arabs everywhere walking right amongst everyone else.  Workplaces are integrated. There are Arab doctors, lawyers, members of the Knesset (parliament.)  In Jerusalem, Arabs generally drive Mercedes vehicles and where beautiful white clothing.  Jews walk or take the bus.  Now seriously, if thats apartheid, shovel some my way.

stevenm1969
stevenm1969

Cut the cute B.S.  Israel have held an apartheid regime over the Palestinians for decades.

HyeonSoo Jeong
HyeonSoo Jeong

If God is still alive, Palestinians should have their ancestor's land returned to them.  

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  But what God?  The One from te Bible, te Jewish people' s 

holy book?  Arabs (like those that started calling themselves Palestinians from 1968   on) are invaders from Arabia.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Jordan and Saudi Arabia won't give it back to them.

Jon
Jon

 You took the words right out of my mouth, Dan.