French paper asserts officials know more about Arafat's death than told

French newspaper Le Figaro carried a piece today, citing an unnamed official, that asserts details of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's 2004 death have been concealed.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
A Palestinian woman stands by a drawing of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, displayed on a street corner in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, July 5. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he's willing to exhume the body after doctors said they found elevated levels of the radioactive agent polonium-210 on clothing reportedly worn by Arafat before his death in November 2004.

French newspaper Le Figaro, citing an unnamed member of the French secret service, today said authorities know more of the causes of Yasser Arafat’s 2004 death at a French military hospital than they have publicly released.

The story follows a series of Al Jazeera reports this week that high levels of polonium-210, a difficult to manufacture radioactive isotope, were found in Arafat’s personal effects. The report reopened a long and emotional controversy over whether the Palestinian leader died by foul play – one bringing great debate in France at the time.

Today’s Figaro story, “France knows but will remain silent,” by journalist Georges Malbrunot, discusses medical analysis of Arafat by French doctors from the time of his death that has never been released in full. The Figaro piece wasn't clear on whether he's referring to the over 500 page medical analysis produced and acknowledged at the time, or some other document. The main French report was not released at the time of his death at the request of his widow Suha Arafat, though parts of the report, which determined he died of natural causes, have leaked out over the years.

The unnamed French secret service official said "the medical dossier of Arafat has been classified somewhere in France but nobody will talk," and alleges “the medical causes were ignored” when Arafat died on Nov. 11, 2004 after being evacuated from his besieged Ramallah compound.

French doctors in 2004 did not test for radioactivity – the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by polonium was not until 2006.  “All the samplings and the analysis on Arafat were never made public by French doctors,” the French source told Mr. Malbrunot, well-known in France after surviving a hostage taking in Iraq in 2004.

Al Jazeera cites a Swiss expert who examined Arafat’s personal effects, including toothbrushes, headgear, and articles of clothing containing traces of body fluid, who found levels of the radioactive substance were nine times higher than the control sample. "I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids," said François Bochud, director of the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland


A determinative answer is likely to come from an examination of the body, medical experts say. Suha Arafat opposed an autopsy at the time of his death. She says she would welcome one now and Palestinian Authority officials this week approved an exhumation of the former national leader.  

Arafat’s death swirled in controversy and conspiracy for a decade, with the youthful Suha consistently alleging he was poisoned, though her initial accusations were against other Palestinians.

Yet polonium is regarded as a substance unlikely to be procured by Arafat’s Palestinian enemies. Israel is one of a handful of states, including Russia, capable of making it; Israel’s Dimona reactor is not under international safeguards. (Some French and Arab blogs this week suggest that Palestinians hired knowingly or unknowingly by Israeli intelligence could have smuggled the polonium into Arafat’s compound during the long siege.)

French media in 2004 at the time of Arafat’s death ran stories citing allegations of foul play, some of which emerged from Arafat’s coterie of friends and his widow. Leila Shadid, Palestinian representative to France at the time, and now representative in Brussels, would not rule out the possibility of assassination. French president Jacques Chirac, a close friend of Arafat and a sympathizer of his cause, told Suha there was something strange about her husband’s death but that it was a mystery and likely to remain one.   


But the assassination or poisoning hypothesis was quickly hushed in the French media at the time of Arafat's death. The left-leaning Liberation argued that unsubstantiated rumors and festering anger threatened relations between Arabs and Muslims and Jews in France. A number of intellectuals and prominent Jewish leaders, in Le Monde and other papers, said the allegations raised anti-Semitic clichés from the Middle Ages, and that the Arafat assassination theory allowed anti-Semites to air their hatred in what appeared a legitimate manner.

“Even mentioning the hypothesis became very sensitive,” says a French source. The clinching argument was finally that no traces of poison were found, something Al Jazeera says it may have upended.  

Arafat became seriously ill in late October 2004 following three years of an Israeli army siege at his Palestinian Authority headquarters. When some 20 Palestinian doctors failed to make a diagnosis, he was evacuated to France and put in intensive care at Percy military hospital in Clamart, south of Paris. He died November 11, 2004, aged 75. The public medical report indicated a destruction of red blood cells as a cause of death, but no cause of illness was forthcoming despite constant tests.  Suha refused a posthumous exam saying that tests had already been made on him, and then she refused to release any but a general medical report for reasons unknown.

Prior to Arafat’s illness, Israeli officials including Ehud Olmert, deputy to then prime minister Ariel Sharon, spoke openly about a desire to be rid of Arafat, who they described as a terrorist.

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