Arafat's exhumation could bring answers – or just more questions

Whether reopening the case of Yasser Arafat's death will take Palestinians forward or backwards is being debated as forensic experts begin analyzing samples for radioactive poisoning.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
Blue tarp covers the entrance to Yasser Arafat's mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The remains of the late Palestinian leader were exhumed from his grave on Tuesday so international forensic experts could search for additional clues to his death, Palestinian officials said.

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Now that the exhumation and reburial of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is complete, the wait for results on cause of death begins. Suspicions that Israel poisoned him are widespread, and the results will put to rest eight years of questions about his rapid health deterioration and subsequent death.

Israel has vehemently denied being responsible for Mr. Arafat's death, and has even called for Palestinian officials to release his medical records to bolster their claims. No autopsy was performed at the time, leaving doctors unable to determine the cause of death. When traces of polonium were found in July on some of Mr. Arafat's belongings that had been handed over to Al Jazeera, it revived the dormant debate, Agence France-Presse reports.

Even before the polonium discovery, many Palestinians suspected Israel was behind Arafat's death, according to AFP. Although he eventually signed a peace agreement with Israel, for a long time he was considered a terrorist by most Israelis for his many years of leading Palestinian resistance to Israel. 

Early this morning, forensic experts removed samples from his corpse, buried in Ramallah in the West Bank. Reuters reports that an analysis of the results isn't expected until March or April 2013. Suspicions are boosted by the fact that Israel kept Arafat confined to his headquarters in Ramallah for the last 2.5 years of his life.

"We need to find the truth. It was very suspicious how he died, just like that, under siege from the Israelis," Ghada Nayfeh told the Guardian.

The Israelis had an opportunity to interfere with food deliveries which passed through their checkpoints during the siege. But they had no way of knowing who would be eating what and the fact that there was no mass poisoning inside the Muqata would mean that Arafat's food was contaminated by someone with direct access to it.

The debate was revived when Arafat's widow, Suha, provided some of his belongings for a documentary and a Swiss institute found traces of polonium on them. However, there are still substantial doubts.

Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose all his hair. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the suspicions this summer. "Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat," he said in July, according to a separate AFP report. "All the medical files are in the hands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication."

Although many Palestinians still clamor for answers, many disagree with reopening the debate, AFP reports.

The late leader's nephew Nasser al-Qidwa – one of the most vocal critics of the entire process – said he found the whole process disturbing and akin to a "desecration."

"No good can come out of this at all," Qidwa said in an interview. "It does no good to the Palestinians."

Qidwa argued that most people in the West Bank already believed that Arafat had been poisoned and did not require any further proof.

"I do not understand this exhumation," he lamented. "The French took all the samples they wanted (at the time of his death)." 

In an editorial today, The Jerusalem Post excoriated those behind the exhumation.

Not only is invaluable energy expended on deception at the expense of tackling actual problems, but fantastic convolutions of trumped up cloak and dagger stories don’t bolster the cause of genuine peace. Falsehoods negate peace.

Where the culture of mendacity reigns, trustworthy accords cannot grow. That’s why the latest twist in the “Arafat assassination” tale matters.

But the Dubai-based newspaper The National makes the opposite argument in an editorial, insisting that whatever the results, they will provide much-needed closure.

It is possible that this latest inquiry will conclude natural causes, which would be closure of a sort. If high levels of polonium contamination are detected, indicating deliberate poisoning, it might simply raise more questions.

There would be no shortage of possible suspects. Many Palestinians consider Israel as the obvious culprit - the hostility of the Second Intifada and decades of unequal sparring would seem to provide clear motive. Polonium 210 is most often associated with nuclear reactors in Israel and Russia. Other theories have speculated that murky rivalries among Palestinian leaders may be to blame.

The uncertainty and suspicion is the most compelling argument to go forward with this investigation. Whether or not Arafat is viewed as a resistance hero, there must be closure about his death, so this mystery doesn't dog subsequent generations of Palestinian leaders. 

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