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Dr Musa A. Keilani: Unearth mystery of death
July 11, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The finding by Al Jazeera Television that Yasser Arafat could have died from poisoning by radioactive polonium has come eight years after the Palestinian icon’s death in a French military hospital.

Many theories have been presented by Palestinian officials and international media about what caused Arafat’s death on Nov.11, 2004 at the age of 75.

A Jordanian, Dr Ashraf Ali Seido Al Kurdi, was Arafat’s personal physician. He flew to Ramallah and came back to announce that Arafat was assassinated by poisoning.

There were always other suspicions that Israel was behind Arafat’s death, but, in reality, it suited Israel’s interests to have him at the helm of Palestinian affairs because it saw him as harmless and unable to pose a real challenge to its interests. In his final days in Palestine, he was confined to his Ramallah compound, unable to move out without explicit Israeli permission. Suddenly, he fell ill and was moved to a military hospital in Paris where he died as he underwent medical tests to determine what was ailing him.

Israel has a record of assassinating Palestinian leaders, but only those who were strong, determined and able to lead an effective campaign against its interests, including security.

The list included Palestinian military commander Khalil Al Wazir, who was killed in Tunis as he successfully guided the intifada that was launched in late 1988. The list also included Khaled Mishaal, current leader of Hamas and one of its five cofounders, but the attempt on his life in an Amman street failed.

If Israel had found Arafat as a serious challenge, then Mossad agents would have gone for him a long time ago and there was no reason to believe it decided to eliminate him in 2004 when Arafat was perceived by Israel as “a first-rate public relations asset.” He was unstable, confused, isolated in his headquarters and not functioning well, notes an Israeli commentator.

In his final days, Arafat’s position was weaker than ever under an Israeli military siege.

True that the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had declared that Arafat was part of the problem and Israel no longer felt bound by a promise not to assassinate him.

Five years after the Palestinian leader’s death, Fatah, the resistance group he founded, said Israel had killed him. The accusation drew Israeli denials and threats as well as declarations that the so-called peace process was over.

It is not the first time that charges have been made that radioactive material had killed Arafat.

In 2011, Fahmi Shabana, a member of Palestinian intelligence who has been involved in the investigation into Arafat’s death, claimed that Palestinian political rivals had poisoned the Palestinian president using polonium.

Tests conducted at the Paris hospital immediately after Arafat’s death found no trace of poison. And rumours were plenty about the cause of the death – cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, even charges that he was infected with HIV.

Now Al Jazeera says it ran a nine-month investigation that led to strong indications that he was poisoned by polonium.

It says that Arafat was in good health until he suddenly fell ill on Oct.12, 2004 and moved to Paris.

According to Al Jazeera, its investigators secured Arafat’s belongings at the time of his death from his widow Suha – clothes, toothbrush and even his iconic headdress – that were stained with his blood, sweat, saliva and urine. These were analysed at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the tests “suggested that there was a high level of polonium inside his body when he died.”

“I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids,” Al Jazeera quoted Dr Francois Bockud, the director of the institute, as saying.

However, this was not conclusive without examining Arafat’s body, which was buried in Ramallah, the institute said.

The report prompted Arafat’s widow to call for the exhumation of the body and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was willing to order it if the family wanted it. Other Palestinian leaders called for an international investigation into Arafat’s death, modelled along the United Nations inquiry into the 2006 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Polonium is described as a highly radioactive element used, among other things, to power spacecraft. Marie Curie discovered it in 1898.

Another polonium victim was Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who died in London in 2006 after a three-week period of illness. A British investigation found that he had taken tea laced with polonium at a restaurant.

Litvinenko suffered severe diarrhoea, weight loss, and vomiting – symptoms Arafat exhibited in the days and weeks after he initially fell ill.

Two Israelis associated with their country’s nuclear programme also died of polonium poising, reports say.

If we were to accept that the Swiss laboratory tests are accurate and Israel was not behind Arafat’s death, then suspicions immediately turn to the people around him. Immediately after his death, Suha Arafat accused top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation of killing him.

However, she withheld Arafat’s medical file and did not permit its release by the Paris hospital where he was admitted. As far as we know, no autopsy was performed.

The Palestinian leadership had announced at least three investigations into the circumstances of Arafat’s death. But none of these panels ever published any conclusions. It is not even known whether they had access to his medical file.

Israeli commentators see the latest report about Arafat’s death as part of a Palestinian psychological warfare operation, aimed at arranging, as one of them phrased it, “a heroic martyr’s death for the father of the nation, claiming falsely that it was at the hands of Mossad or Shin Bet.”

We do not know what becomes of the latest findings. Polonium is a material that is not easy to get access to. It can be developed only in a nuclear reactor. If the findings are not scientifically investigated, then we could only continue to speculate who, when and why Arafat was killed. However, Israel leads the list of suspects because it has the expertise and facilities to produce polonium.

The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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