Bringing Up Yasir Arafat’s Body

Was he poisoned? A team of scientists is set to exhume the former Palestinian leader's body on Tuesday in order to find out. Tracy McNicoll talks to the grave diggers.

11.24.12 9:45 AM ET

A phalanx of international experts from Switzerland, France, and Russia are set to descend on the West Bank city of Ramallah next week as the body of emblematic Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is exhumed for tests. The move comes just four months after an Al Jazeera documentary revealed new Swiss findings of unusually high levels of the deadly radioactive isotope polonium-210 on Arafat’s last personal effects. It is seen as a last-gasp effort to finally solve the mystery of his November 2004 death in France. Scientifically speaking, the Swiss experts who made the shock findings say, it just can’t wait.

“There’s no second chance, for anybody,” Darcy Christen, spokesman for the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, tells The Daily Beast. “There’s no way we could do this again. If we don’t do it this way, it’s over.”

The scientists—and, surely, many Palestinians—are keen to learn whether Arafat actually ingested unsupported polonium-210, the sort that requires a nuclear reactor to produce. The extremely rare agent can kill in microscopic quantities and was responsible for the death of the Russian Kremlin critic and former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Polonium can also occur naturally.

The trouble is, polonium-210 degrades quickly, making the search for it in mortal remains eight years on a true race against the clock. “Every 138 days, the radioactivity of polonium goes down by half. So, roughly since President Arafat died, we’ve gone through 20 or 21 cycles, which is a lot. That means the polonium—if there was any originally—should be very low now,” Christen explains. “If we wait too long, the remaining radiation would be so low that it may not be valid scientifically. So we have actually put a deadline to the end of November, saying that beyond that date, scientifically, [exhuming the body for samples] would not make much sense.”

When the 75 year-old Arafat died in a French military hospital on Nov. 11, 2004, a month after falling violently ill at his Ramallah compound, French doctors could only say he succumbed to a stroke resulting from a blood disorder. But they could never pinpoint the underlying cause of his sudden illness, despite batteries of tests run during his 17-day hospital stay. Shortly after his death, one poll showed 80 percent of Palestinians believed Arafat had been poisoned. (Amid finger-pointing, meanwhile, Israel has always denied any responsibility for his death.) But no poisoning was ever proven and an autopsy was never performed; the secret of what really killed Arafat, it seemed, was buried with him forever under a concrete slab in his West Bank mausoleum.

Until now. For the Al Jazeera documentary, which aired in July (“What Killed Arafat?”), the late Palestinian leader’s wife, Suha, agreed to provide the personal effects she obtained from France’s Percy military hospital after his death for testing in Switzerland. The items filled a black duffle bag and included underwear, a blue hospital bonnet, a toothbrush, even Arafat’s trademark black-and-white keffiyeh headdress. Some were stained with exploitable DNA. Scientists at the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne were surprised to detect “an unexplained, elevated amount” of unsupported (artificial) polonium-210 on Arafat’s belongings, as François Bochud, the Institute’s director, explained in the Al Jazeera film.

“We had to check and double-check and triple-check. Then we had to wait 138 days to make sure that what we found made sense,” Christen tells The Daily Beast. But, he stresses, “We’re not saying that it was poisoning. Nobody can say that at this stage. We just say: Surprisingly, we found significantly high levels of polonium.”

In 2004, French hospital records show, doctors had tested their famous patient for radioactive agents. But their tests were for gamma, not alpha, radiation, so they naturally would have missed any polonium diagnosis. Still, the Swiss specialists don’t blame their French counterparts. “At that time, there was no reason to do it. Really, honestly, that’s not their fault,” says Christen. “It was only later when Litvinenko was assassinated that people started to know the substance. At that time [when Arafat died in 2004], I think nobody would have really looked into that.”

And in any case, the Swiss finding raised more questions than it answered. Arafat wasn’t tested for polonium poisoning while he was alive, but he hadn’t shown signs of it, either. “We had access to the French medical files from Percy and those files were really well done,” Christen says. “But the clinical signs that are described in the medical files are not consistent with poisoning by polonium,” he explains, citing the example of Litvinenko’s complete hair loss in the three weeks between his poisoning and his death, a symptom Arafat did not display. “So this is puzzling,” Christen concedes. “But at the same time, we only have maybe a handful of cases in history of people that were poisoned with polonium, so we don’t really know the effects of polonium on patients.”

The next step was to test whether Arafat had actually ingested or inhaled a quantity of the suspect isotope. Suha Arafat turned to the French hospital for extant urine and blood samples she could pass along to the Swiss experts for analysis. But she was told the samples had been destroyed in 2008. That left exhumation as the last and only resort to learning more.

The new findings and lacking samples also led Mrs. Arafat to file a legal complaint in France, prompting French authorities to open a murder inquiry in August. All three French investigating magistrates charged with that case are expected to make the trip to Ramallah this week. The Swiss finding also prompted the Palestinian Authority to mandate the same Swiss experts at the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne initially chartered by Suha Arafat to lead their own separate scientific inquiry on the Palestinians’ behalf. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas invited Russian authorities to furnish further scientists to draw their own samples and conduct yet another set of tests.

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The Swiss have conditioned their involvement on the sample-taking being “simultaneous and equal,” meaning they wouldn’t be traveling to Ramallah just to let someone else harvest samples on their behalf. And they expect each of the teams involved to be there at every step from the start. “If we want to do something that has any validity scientifically, you have to be there when you are opening the tomb because you have to also do environmental measurements,” Christen explains. “We see rather favorably that there are several teams because, from a scientific point of view, the more teams you have, the better guarantees you have for objectivity.” After an exploratory mission in early November to assess the technical feasibility of the mission, the Swiss lab will be sending a team of six radiophysicists and legal medicine specialists. Christen says their strict criteria for involvement were all met. “We had clear withdrawal clauses saying that at any point if we feel we cannot work freely we’re just going to pack and go home. And all along the line everybody has accepted that,” he said, adding, too, that there has been “zero” pressure from Israeli authorities.

But don’t expect a resolution to the mystery of Yasir Arafat’s death just yet. No one can know the exact state of the remains after eight years underground until the dirt is lifted, likely Tuesday. Even if the samples scientists yield from Arafat’s remains are scientifically exploitable, they are in for a long wait. To confirm the nature of any polonium finding, scientists would have to wait at least one 138-day half-life cycle to observe the discovered material’s decay. Naturally occurring polonium renews itself even as it dies away during the 138-day cycle, while man-made, or unsupported, polonium does not. “I’m sure we will not have any results before spring,” says Christen. “We need at least four to six months to have some kind of evidence and also evidence that has been checked and double-checked.”

Like science imitating the region’s politics, an all-new tale of hurry up and wait.