11.27.12

Was Yasir Poisoned? Arafat’s Body Exhumed

Polonium-210 degrades quickly, but not fast enough to dispel conspiracy theories about the Palestinian leader’s death. Dan Ephron on why Arafat’s exhumation may doom reconciliation with Israel.

Medical experts from three different countries exhumed the body of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah this morning to determine if his death eight years ago was caused by poisoning.

The complicated procedure occurred behind a curtain of blue tarps that Palestinian officials had hung around Arafat’s mausoleum in recent days. At the site’s perimeter, Palestinians and journalists gathered to catch a glimpse of the forensic process, which lasted several hours. By midday, Arafat’s remains were reinterred with full military honors.

The significance of the investigation is potentially huge. Arafat was the founding father of the Palestinian liberation movement and a national icon. Proof that he was poisoned—ostensibly by Israel—could doom any chance of reconciliation between the two sides well into the future, or trigger another Palestinian uprising in the West Bank.

But a more likely scenario might be an ambiguous finding that neither confirms nor rules out Israel’s culpability. Results are not expected for at least four months. 

“This feels like a lot of drama, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the two sides ended up right where they started, with no clear determination on this,” said a Western diplomat who communicates regularly with both Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Most Palestinians have long believed that Israel killed Arafat in retaliation for his long campaign against the Jewish state and specifically for the suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis that marked the second Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza a decade ago.

A more likely scenario might be an ambiguous finding that neither confirms nor rules out Israel’s culpability.

The cause of his death at a French hospital in 2004 was never fully determined, and no autopsy was performed on his body.

But an Al Jazeera documentary aired over the summer provided the first shreds of possible evidence. The network persuaded Arafat’s widow, Suha, to submit her husband’s belongings to French and Swiss forensic experts, who found high levels of the radioactive isotope polonium-210.

The same substance was determined to have caused the death of KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

The findings prompted French authorities to launch a murder inquiry. In the West Bank, they gave new impetus to an investigation that Palestinian Authority officials had been conducting for years. 

But among Palestinian officials, there appeared to be some resistance to the probe by foreigners. 

“We never went to any international side. They came to us,” Tawfiq Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian investigation committee, told The Daily Beast at his Ramallah office. He emphasized that Palestinian medical experts had supervised Tuesday’s forensic procedure and that the teams would report their results to the Palestinian Authority.

Tirawi also said French investigators who had come to Ramallah as part of their probe were not allowed to interrogate anyone directly but could pass their questions in writing to Palestinian police.

Relations between Arafat’s widow and top Palestinian leaders have reportedly been strained for years.

Tirawi said his committee had always believed that Israel had a hand in Arafat’s death. 

“This is not a new strategy for Israel. It has killed all kinds of Palestinian leaders from all the factions,” he said.

But other Palestinian officials, including Nasser al-Qidwa, the former ambassador to the United Nations, had argued that it was wrong for Palestinians to dwell on the issue. Qidwa, who is also Arafat’s nephew, told The Daily Beast earlier this year that the region can only lose from a new push in the investigation.

“If proof [that Arafat was poisoned] is discovered, it will take a generation for the two sides to get over this so why start something in the first place?” he said. 

Other people familiar with the probe said the chances that the findings would be definitive were not high.

Scientists don’t know much about the effects of polonium-210 on the body—Litvinenko’s death was the first high-profile case of poisoning from the substance. 

In Arafat’s case, the passage of time since his death is a huge complicating factor.

A spokesman for the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, Darcy Christen, told The Daily Beast’s Tracy McNicoll last week, polonium-210 degrades quickly. After eight years, traces of the isotope are expected to be extremely low. 

“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,” Christen said.