Arafat’s Polonium Poisoning Mystery Resurfaces

Was the Palestinian leader poisoned by a rare radioactive polonium? Maybe. Will we ever know for sure who did it? Nope.

Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty

What Yasir Arafat put into his mouth was almost as fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, as what came out of it. The grizzled guerrilla who wanted to be the father of his country, Palestine, would talk terror and peace in almost the same breath. He preached liberation and practiced assassination, and he’d slither around the substance of almost any conversation.

So, in the course of several frustrating interviews I had with Arafat in the years before his death in 2004, I often found myself focusing on his weird dietary habits. I remember one very late night in Gaza, for instance, when he was crunching and swallowing the laxative Metamucil straight out of the bottle … Perhaps better not to think too long about that.

But since Arafat may have been poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium, as his widow claims and new research by Swiss pathologists tends to confirm, this issue of his gourmandise may have more than passing relevance to an investigation that one Israeli official describes as “more soap opera than science.”

Indeed, Arafat’s life and death are as fraught with treachery as any season of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. If he was poisoned, the list of suspects is so long, including not only his Israeli enemies but his putative Arab friends, that the conspiracy-minded can pretty much take their pick.

Arafat’s tastes were strange but very simple. No elaborate meals, no complicated sauces, no wine, no beer. And in 2004 he was under more or less permanent siege by the Israeli government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his old nemesis, retaliating for a wave of suicide bombings two years before.

“On the evening of October 12, 2004, approximately four hours after eating dinner, President Arafat began to experience severe nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain followed by watery diarrhea,” says the forensic report by the Swiss University Center of Legal Medicine. “He did not have a fever” and the first medical exams recorded his condition as “unremarkable.” After two weeks he had lost about seven pounds. He still had no fever, but his blood work showed a dramatic decline in platelets. Something was destroying them, and repeated transfusions were not making enough of a difference.

Seventeen days after Arafat got sick, he was flown to France. He had no sign of a spreading infection, a tumor, or auto-immune deficiency. But by November 2, Arafat was delirious. Day by day his organs began to fail, and on November 11 he died.

Based on an examination of Arafat’s belongings and his remains, which were dug up last year, the Swiss conclude he had about 18 times the normal amount of polonium-210 in his system.

The same rare isotope was used to kill Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London two years later, allegedly on orders from Moscow. Prior to that, its use as a means of assassination was virtually unknown.

The cautious Swiss analysts say that the traces of plutonium in Arafat’s corpse “moderately” support the theory he was poisoned, although the amounts are now so infinitesimal it is hard to draw any firm conclusions.

The Swiss report, posted online by Al Jazeera, goes on to offer some intriguing glimpses into Arafat and his habits. He had a small duffel bag full of his personal belongings when he was flown to France. In it, the 75-year-old founder of Fatah and ruler of the Palestine Liberation Organization had gloves and track suits, several pairs of underwear (briefs), his trademark keffiyehs and a couple of hats to cover his bald head; five pairs of glasses, two sets of worry beads, and a compass, like a Boy Scout might carry.

“He used to travel a lot in other people’s private planes,” one of Arafat’s relatives once told me. “He was scared they would take him some place he didn’t want to go. So he always had a compass, to know at least which direction he was heading.”

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Arafat was a man looking over his shoulder. Who could he trust? Where could he be truly safe? He was never sure.

The first meal we shared together was in Baghdad one morning in 1987. He was relatively comfortable there in a villa supplied by Saddam Hussein where his cronies, friends, admirers and operatives could come and go with relative ease and security.

Arafat sat across from me at a long table. He hadn’t bothered to put on the black-checked keffiyeh that he usually tried to drape so its folds suggested the shape of mandate Palestine. His scalp was freckled and shiny, with wispy tufts of hair above his ears. One of his men put a bowl of cornflakes in front of him and a pot of hot tea. He poured milk into the tea, and then poured the tea into the bowl on top of the cereal, turning it into a sweetened mush.

That same morning, Arafat introduced me to a young Palestinian woman he described as very brave. She had thick, black hair, deep dark eyes, and was missing several fingers from an accident with a bomb, he said, widening his eyes to suggest I should share his admiration. For what it’s worth I didn’t get the feeling that Arafat was not interested in women, as some people have claimed. I thought he was quite interested in this one.

That same week, when I went to Arafat’s office for a formal interview, I had to wait long past the appointed time. One always did with Arafat. He was busy talking to the redoubtable Palestinian journalist Raymonda Tawil, a very handsome woman then in her late 40s, who seemed quite thrilled to be spending time with the great leader. As Arafat saw her out, and me in, he admonished, “Don’t tell anyone she is here.” Tawil normally lived in Israeli-occupied territory, and her presence didn’t seem relevant, then, to anything I was writing, so I agreed.

But of course I thought back on that encounter in 1990 when the 61-year-old Arafat married Raymonda’s daughter, Suha, on her 27th birthday.

When Arafat’s daughter was born in 1995, that opened the door to new levels of intrigue. By then, the Israelis and Palestinians were trying to make peace—and make money in the process. Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin loathed Arafat, but Rabin advisor Yossi Ginossar, formerly a controversial official in Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security apparatus, smoothed relations with business deals and personal touches. In Rabin’s name, Ginossar gave Suha a basket in which to carry the infant Zahwa, who was actually born in Paris.

Mrs. Arafat spent a lot of time in France in the following decade as the Palestinians and Israelis watched their hopes for peace fall apart after Rabin’s assassination, and as they fell back into old patterns of terror and war.

In Paris, one of Suha’s closest friends and advisors was a man named Pierre Rizk, a former senior intelligence officer for the Christian Lebanese Forces, a powerful and ruthless militia that was partly funded and trained by the Israelis in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Rizk, in his early 40s, spoke several languages. He lived well, ate well, had impeccably tailored suits and elegant manners: all in all, a very well polished spy. Rizk had been a go-between for a deal in 1987 that could stand as a paradigm for Middle Eastern intrigue: an alliance between Saddam Hussein, the Lebanese Forces and Arafat’s Fatah fighters. The Christians and Palestinians had spent decades killing each other, but now they wanted to make common cause against Lebanon’s Shiite militias and rattle medium-range missiles in Israel’s direction, too.

Somehow Rizk got signing authority on the bank account through which Saddam funded all this, and, according to several sources, Rizk emptied it. As far as I know, he never went back to Lebanon after that, and when he and I would meet in Paris, it was usually in a hotel watched closely by the French intelligence services. They had their own interests in this well-connected Lebanese spy.

For reasons best known to Rizk, even as he was counseling Suha, he was giving me and other reporters extensive incriminating documents meant to demonstrate Arafat’s corruption during the first years of Palestinian Authority control over parts of Gaza and the West Bank.

Rizk’s reputation among other members of the extended Arafat family was such that when Arafat died so suddenly and mysteriously in 2004, some suspected that Rizk somehow had a hand in poisoning him, whether for his own reasons, or on behalf of someone else. Then Rizk himself died rather mysteriously in 2010.

“He died suddenly of—we were told of cancer—in the American Hospital in Paris,” says one of Suha’s friends at the time, who doesn’t want to be named in this article. “We never heard that he had cancer, and all of a sudden we heard that he had died—just … died.” Such was Rizk’s reputation, says the same source, that “rumors spread around that he had just disappeared and the coffin they put in the earth was just an empty coffin.”

So the Arafat mystery continues. A Russian investigation has concluded there was no poisoning. (And the Russians do know a thing or two about polonium.) The Swiss say there might be poison. A French investigation has yet to be concluded. But it is doubtful anyone will ever prove who poisoned Arafat, if poisoned he was. Not the perfect crime, perhaps, but perfect enough.