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.

By , Staff writer

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    In this file photo, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat talks to the media during a press conference at his headquarters, in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Yasser Arafat's body may be exhumed to allow for more testing of the causes of his death after a Swiss lab said it found elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in belongings the Palestinian leader is said to have used in his final days.
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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.

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.

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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.

Far-right Israelis quickly began circulating stories that Arafat was a closeted homosexual who'd probably died of AIDS, an assertion with no evidence to support it but well-designed to infuriate Arafat's supporters. That claim has endured in some quarters for years. The Times of Israel published a piece today written by Lenny Ben-David, a former senior Israeli diplomat, that repeats the assertion.

Here are the indisputable facts: In late October 2004, Arafat fell deeply ill. After negotiations with the Israelis, he was transported to France for medical treatment. In early November of that year he fell into a coma and passed away at France's Percy military hospital on November 11. An in-depth autopsy was not carried out at the request of his estranged wife, Suha.

But French military doctors wrote a 500 page report on his passing that later leaked to the press that said they had tested for known poisons and found his death was from natural causes. 

But what really happened? It's impossible to say with certainty with the information currently available.

Certainly Suha's involvement will fuel the doubters. She's a polarizing figure among Palestinians for her lavish lifestyle and alleged corruption. She repeatedly alleged at the time of his illness that Palestinian political rivals of her husband were behind his illness. Other Palestinians blamed Israel's Mossad intelligence service, which has carried out assassinations around the world down the years.

The Associated Press reports that Francois Bochud, who heads the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne that conducted the tests, said that Ms. Arafat, who was 27 years old when she married the 61-year-old Arafat in in 1990, told him she'd kept the clothing and other items tested at her lawyer's office in Paris until early this year, when she asked Al Jazeera to have the items tested on her behalf. Ms. Arafat lived mostly in Tunisia from 2004-2007 until she had a falling out with then Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's wife Leila Trabelsi. She's lived mostly in France and Malta since then.

Last year, Tunisian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Ms. Arafat, saying she was wanted in connection with the former first family's corruption. Arafat has denied any wrong-doing.

While the facts are still being determined, what's clear is that this is likely to pose the latest in a string of political headaches for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's popularity has plummeted as Israel continues to expand West Bank settlements. The cautious, accommodating leader will not be enjoying renewed comparisons with Arafat, the charismatic revolutionary whose own corruption and failings have dimmed from popular memory in recent years.

And if solid evidence does emerge he was murdered, after a proper autopsy is done, then a storm could start to break. While it may prove hard, if not impossible, to find out exactly where the polonium came from Israel will be the first assumption of the Palestinian public and uncomfortable questions will be asked on how it made its way to Arafat, inside his Palestinian bunker.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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