Israel Didn't Kill Arafat

Al Jazeera’s English-language TV service released a new documentary that reveals evidence suggesting that Yasser Arafat was poisoned by a radioactive element, polonium-210. Many who followed Arafat’s death believe that Israel took a byproduct of its nuclear program and used it to turn Arafat into a sickly, weak man, leading to his death in November 2004.

The documentary, by an American reporter, Clayton Swisher, was sparked by the findings of a Swiss laboratory which tested some of Arafat’s clothing and detected unusually high levels of polonium. The traces were weak, it turns out now, but still a lot stronger than would be expected in the natural environment. Suha, Arafat’s widow furnished the clothing to Al Jazeera. Since the release of the documentary, the Palestinian Authority has agreed to have Arafat’s body exhumed, so that more tests can be conducted for radioactive toxins.

Does the documentary illuminate the true cause of Arafat’s death? Was he really poisoned? And by who? Israel? Or his enemies within the PLO?

Our research reveals that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s inner cabinet and senior Israeli intelligence chiefs discussed the idea of killing Arafat. In fact, senior IDF officers and military intelligence agents were in favor of taking harsh action against Arafat. Shaul Mofaz, the Defense Minister at the time, was even overheard whispering into Sharon’s ear: “Let’s get rid of him,” in reference to Arafat.

But, based on many interviews with Israeli officials, political activists, military officers, and intelligence professionals, it seems almost certain that Sharon rejected all proposals to kill Arafat–or even to have elite military commandos “snatch” Arafat and expel him from Palestine.

Prime Minister Sharon thought that being accused of killing Arafat was not worth the advantages of being rid of him. Arafat already seemed to be an irrelevant leader whose true traits–unreliability and slippery untrustworthiness–were discovered not only by Israel, but by the international community.

The cause of Arafat’s death remains a mystery. His wife’s refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to perform an autopsy has only added to the confusion. Why didn’t she send some of her husband’s clothing out for tests in 2004? It certainly is possible that someone, on her behalf or the instructions of others, tainted Arafat’s belongings with polonium after reading about the poisoned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Furthering the confusion, a senior Palestinian intelligence officer accused Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, of corruption early last year. The accuser also mentioned that Arafat had been poisoned with polonium.

On Monday Abbas ordered that Arafat’s grave–a place of political pilgrimage in Ramallah in the West Bank–be opened, so that the longtime guerrilla movement leader’s remains can be examined. Will everyone accept the findings of such an examination?

Perhaps one of the mysteries of the past decade can be cleared up; but probably not. In the meantime, the real issues between Israel and the Palestinians–how to restart peace negotiations and work seriously for a compromise peace between the two peoples–are left again in a fog of distraction and disagreement.