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Mystery Deepens Around Death of Yasser Arafat



'Bolognium': Was Yasser Arafat the victim of radioactive polonium poisoning? (Pictured: Artist's conception of a radioactive Arafat.)The late Palestinian leader and terrorist mastermind Yasser Arafat’s body will be exhumed by Palestinians so that they can conduct tests on it to determine whether he may have been poisoned prior to his death in 2004. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas disclosed the latest development after a Swiss laboratory revealed that it had discovered elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in personal items Arafat apparently used in his final days.

Arafat’s widow, Suha, advocated that her husband should be given an autopsy in the wake of the lab’s findings, which were initially reported by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. In an interview with the station, Mrs. Arafat did not elaborate as to why she waited almost eight years to have the personal items, which include a toothbrush and a fur hat, tested. Suha Arafat withheld her consent for an autopsy at the time of her husband’s death.

When the Palestinian leader died at a military hospital outside Paris in November 2004, French physicians stated that he had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, several weeks after becoming seriously ill at his West Bank compound.

Doctors – including independent experts who reviewed Arafat’s medical records for the Associated Press – have never yet been able to identify the underlying cause of the brain hemorrhage. Much of the Arab world has continued to speculate that he was murdered by Israel, which considered Arafat to be an obstacle to a peace treaty. Israeli government officials have strongly denied any involvement in his death.

Francois Bochud, director of the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, explained that his laboratory analyzed possessions that Arafat’s widow said her husband had used near the end of his life, as well as other items of clothing that he had not worn. Suha Arafat said the items were placed in a secure room at her lawyer’s office in Paris following Arafat’s death and remained there until Al-Jazeera contacted the laboratory on her behalf at the beginning of this year, he added.

Experts detected what Bochud described as “very small” quantities of polonium, an isotope that exists naturally in the environment. However, higher quantities of polonium were found in Arafat’s underwear and hospital clothing.

This discovery would not necessarily provide conclusive proof that Arafat was poisoned, Bochud said, noting that it is not possible to determine where the polonium might have emanated from. “What is possible to say is that we have an unexplained level of polonium, so this clearly goes toward the hypothesis of a poisoning, but our results are clearly not a proof of any poisoning,” Bochud said.

Polonium was the substance known to have caused the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who later became a public critic of the Russian government, in London in 2006. Litvinenko had drunk tea laced with polonium.

In a statement issued by his office, Abbas said he is prepared to cooperate with new testing. “The Palestinian Authority was and remains fully prepared to cooperate and to provide all the facilities needed to reveal the real causes that led to the death of the late president,” the statement said. “There are no religious or political reasons that preclude research on this issue, including an examination of the late president by a reliable national medical body, upon request and approval by his family.” The highest-ranking Muslim religious official in the Palestinian territories, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, said he had no religious objections to an autopsy on Arafat.

At the time of his death, Arafat was virtually held prisoner by Israel in the Ramallah government compound. The United States and Israel regarded the Palestinian leader as primarily responsible for the second Palestinian intifada.

In a radio interview at the time, Dov Weisglass, the chief of staff of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismissed the Al-Jazeera report. Weisglass insisted that Israeli officials had never intended to kill Arafat. He said Sharon was not in favor of killing Arafat because “he didn’t think his physical extermination would help. On the contrary.”

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor downplayed the latest development, saying “the circumstances of Arafat’s death are not a mystery … He was treated in France, in a French hospital by French doctors and they have all the medical information.”

The possibility that Israel may have used polonium to murder Arafat was also dismissed by Benny Avni in an opinion piece in the New York Post. Noting Sharon’s opposition to the idea, Avni writes that even if the Prime Minister may have changed his mind and approved the killing of Arafat by poison, he would have likely preferred the use of an untraceable toxin so that Israel would not come under suspicion.

“Never mind, too, that none of Litvinenko’s tell-tale symptoms of polonium kill (hair loss, bone-marrow deterioration) were found in Arafat’s body,” Avni notes. “Or that toxin experts highly doubt that polonium traces can last this long.” Indeed, the limited half-life of polonium (138 days), say experts, makes it incredibly unlikely that so much would be found on Arafat’s belongings, or person, eight years after his death. This has led some to suggest that the radioactive material was planted well after the fact. Avni relates further that, in 2004, French authorities reported that they did not find any toxins during their treatment of the Palestinian leader. He also reminds us that Arafat’s personal physician stated in a televised interview that the Palestinian leader – who was long rumored to be a homosexual – had died of AIDS.

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