Yasser Arafat killed by radiation poisoning?
An Al Jazeera report argues that's likely, sparking a renewed flurry of speculation about how the Palestinian leader died.
Was Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat murdered, poisoned with the same radioactive element that Russian agents used to kill Alexander Litvinenko in 2006? That's being suggested by a series of reports put out by Al Jazeera this week, igniting calls from his widow to exhume his body for further testing and a return to the anger over his death eight years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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An investigation by Al Jazeera finds that "tests reveal that Arafat’s final personal belongings – his clothes, his toothbrush, even his iconic kaffiyeh – contained abnormal levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element. Those personal effects, which were analyzed at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, were variously stained with Arafat’s blood, sweat, saliva and urine. The tests carried out on those samples suggested that there was a high level of polonium inside his body when he died."
Well, they might, in what's the latest twist in the controversy over Arafat's death. Polonium is a rare element, hard for anyone but a national government to get its hands on and dangerous to handle. Its presence on Arafat's belongings is certainly suggestive. But it's also not out of the realm of possibility that it was added to his effects after his death (though, again, it's very difficult to obtain). Only if his body is exhumed -- carefully, under supervision by professionals guarding against tampering -- can suspicion congeal into fact.
For the moment there are lots of unanswered questions, perhaps most importantly: Why are the clothes only being tested eight years after the fact?
When Arafat died there was an avalanche of speculation that it was foul play. My assumption in 2004 was that it wasn't entirely shocking that a 75-year old man, who'd had a hard life and his physical movement restricted by Israel to his compound for the previous two years, would pass away. Conspiracy theories are popular everywhere, certainly nowhere more so than in the Middle East, and a lot of the speculation about his death struck me as standard point-making from opposing sides.
Many Palestinians were convinced that he'd been poisoned by Israel. In the final years of his life, Arafat had been completely isolated by Israel. In 2002, Israeli troops laid seige to his Muqata headquarters in Ramallah and destroyed all but one of the buildings there with bulldozers. From the point of view of Arafat stalwarts, what could make more sense than Israel finishing off a man they'd come to see as an obstacle in the years since the Oslo accords? And it wasn't as if Israel had been shy about threatening Arafat.
In September 2003 Ehud Olmert, then a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet, told Israel Radio that killing Arafat "is definitely one of the options" the government was considering. "We are trying to eliminate all the heads of terror, and Arafat is one of the heads of terror," Mr. Olmert, who went on to serve as Prime Minister, said at the time. Arafat was dead a little over a year later.