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.

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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.”

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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.

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