Poisoned probably, but who by?
This posting has these conjectures and circumstances of Arafat’s death. Proposed culprits (not all included here) are Israeli secret services, Israeli freelances, Russian secret services, Palestinian enemies of Arafat, Palestinian agents of Israel. The initial French failure to diagnose polonium poisoning appears to be because they did not have polonium in stock to provide its chemical composition for comparison – or because it wasn’t there in sufficient quantity.
1) Tikun Olam: Swiss Scientists Confirm Arafat Murdered by Polonium, Richard Silverstein assembles the evidence that Israel killed Arafat;
2) AP: Russian report stirs new confusion in Arafat death, Russian forensic results ‘inconclusive’, but Palestinians accuse Israel;
3) Booman Tribune: Did the Russians Poison Arafat?, Russians only ones to have used this method before;
4) Al Jazeera: Swiss study: Polonium found in Arafat’s bones, Al Jazeera scoop on the investigation it initiated;
5) Al Jazeera: Myth buster: Killing Arafat, Q & A on the assumed crime;
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat surrounded by doctors from Tunis, Egypt and Jordan in his office in the West Bank City of Ramallah on October 28, 2004, two weeks after he fell ill and the day before he left for Paris. Photo by Reuters.
Swiss Scientists Confirm Arafat Murdered by Polonium
By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
November 07, 2013
Yesterday, the PA and scientists who studied the skeletal remains of Yasser Arafat confirmed (full scientific report here) that he was assassinated, poisoned with the highest dose of polonium ever recorded in a human being. The level was either 18 or 36 times the normal level (depending on how one counts a normal dose). The scientists rated the certainty of their findings on a scale of 1 to 6, giving the results a 5 score, meaning they had an 83% level of confidence.
The scientists tested bone fragments from his body and the surrounding soil, where bodily fluids had leaked, and all the results were uniform. Thus, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Yasser Arafat was murdered in 2004. He originally became sick four hours after eating a meal in his compound three weeks before his eventual death. So just as Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by KGB agents via a cup of tea drunk in a London tea shop, Arafat was poisoned through food he ate.
Now we must consider who had motive, means and opportunity. Let’s consider means first, because it severely narrows the number of suspects. The only countries in the world doing serious research into polonium are Russia, the U.S., and Israel. That means that the source of the poison was likely one of these places. I think we have to rule out the U.S. because it maintains strict control on access to such a highly dangerous and lethal substance.
We’ve seen that Russia murdered Litvinenko with polonium in 2006, so it’s entirely possible it provided the material to poison Arafat. To do so, it would’ve needed to supply the polonium to someone in Arafat’s inner circle. In other words, either the Russians or the PA would’ve wanted him dead and would’ve had to collaborate in order to kill him. This seems highly unlikely. The Russians had no motive to kill him or allow anyone else to do so. In fact, Russia has always been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
That leaves Israel. Later in this post, I’ll republish an earlier post I wrote about Israel’s checkered past concerning polonium research. It will attest that Israel’s top-secret chemical weapons facility at Nes Ziona has been experimenting with polonium since the late 1950s. It produces the radioactive element at its Dimona reactor. Clearly, Israel of all the other suspects had the means to kill Arafat.
Now let’s explore motive: in the period leading up to Arafat’s murder Israel had laid siege to him in his Ramallah fortress, the Muqata. Over time, the Israelis had destroyed more and more of the complex so that Arafat and his followers were holed up in a small space surrounded by ruins. All contact with the outside world including electricity, telephone and water had been severed. Though it might not have been clear at the time, the Israelis probably were trying to force him into exile. They may’ve believed he’d relent and leave the Muqata for exile. If so, they didn’t bargain for Arafat’s unrelenting steadfastness to the Palestinian cause and his leadership of it.
Haaretz journalist, Danny Rubinstein, who wrote an earlier book about Arafat, spent many hours interviewing Israelis officials. He says that they were obsessed with destroying Arafat’s political credibility and ultimately getting rid of him:
In the weeks and months before Arafat’s death, he [Rubinstein] said, people in Sharon’s inner circle talked constantly about how to get rid of him. “For me, it was very clear from the beginning. Every day this was the topic – should we expel him, or kill him, or bomb the Muqata [Arafat’s HQ]. It was obvious to me that they would find a way.”
In September, 2003, Israeli vice-premier Ehud Olmert had told Israel Radio virtually the same thing, that murder was definitely under consideration:
“Killing [him] is definitely one of the options.”
Even as unlikely a source as Jeffrey Goldberg provides supporting evidence confirming Sharon’s enthusiasm for offing Arafat:
[Those in] the Israeli government [who deny Israeli leaders wanted to kill Arafat] should remember that it was the official policy of several past Israeli leaders to try to kill Arafat…I had several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principal Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, and today’s report sent me back to a profile I wrote of Sharon that appeared 12 years ago:
“…By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly. ‘All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort — and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader — to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.’”
Ariel Sharon appointed Meir Dagan the new chief of the Mossad in 2002. He took over from the rather cerebral, Ephraim Halevy. Sharon essentially charged Dagan with being just the opposite: ruthless and conniving in fighting terror. He told him to “have a knife in his teeth” as he proceeded. So it seems that the two major culprits for this killing were Sharon, who ordered the hit; and Dagan who carried it out.
Killing the leader of an enemy people or nation, especially outside of wartime, should (and may) be a crime under international law. It should be beyond the pale for any civilized nation. We cannot bring Sharon up on war crimes charges, but we can Dagan. If there is any way to trace the polonium to its source.
Journalist Uri Dan (died 2006), L, with close friend Ariel Sharon.
I’ve reported separately  that Ariel Sharon confidant, Uri Dan, wrote a book in which he claims Sharon once all but conceded he was responsible. This is from the Haaretz review of the book:
Dan…hints that Arafat’s death was not caused by any illness. He himself suggested to Sharon that Arafat be captured and brought to trial in Jerusalem, like Eichmann, but Sharon reassured him that he was dealing with the problem in his own way. Then Arafat fell ill, was flown to Paris for treatment and died. Was Sharon involved? This is what Dan wrote then in Maariv–that in the history books prime minister Ariel Sharon will be remembered as the man who eliminated Yasser Arafat without killing him. Let every reader figure it out for himself.
What Dan meant is that Sharon arranged for Arafat to be murdered, but didn’t have to put a bullet into him to do it. The killing was done subtly, so that no fingerprints would be left. Certainly, knowing the ethical lows to which Israeli intelligence is willing to sink, the operation was a resounding success. Imagine: it took nine years for the world to learn the little it knows now. We may never be able to identify the smoking gun.
Though it would of course be helpful if we could (and we may yet as technology becomes ever more subtle and precise) know, it’s not necessary. Israel had the motive, means and opportunity.
I’ve offered ample motive in the above passages. Now let’s examine opportunity: Arafat was surrounded by a small Palestinian circle of those he trusted. Around them was an Israeli cordon sanitaire. Israel had full control of everything outside the complex. It also had control of what came in and went out. It would’ve been quite easy to poison anything that Arafat used during his meals: the raw foods used to make his meals, his utensils, cooking pots, plates. Finally, if it had to, Israel might’ve paid someone on the inside to do the dirty work, or it might’ve replaced an item used or ingested by Arafat that entered the complex, with a precise duplicate that was poisoned. Though many, including the Israelis, have attempted to divert blame by raising this possibility of internal intrigue, I think it’s unlikely Israel even had to go this route.
So there you have it: Israel is by far the most likely culprit. There’s one way to challenge Israel’s denials. Plutonium created in different reactors has different signatures. So the element created in a Russian reactor would have a different isotope signature than that created in Dimona. All Israel has to do is provide a tiny amount of plutonium created at Dimona for comparison to the polonium that murdered Arafat. This would be a definitive way to confirm or rule out Israeli involvement.
Various journalists have suggested that this murder is a historical footnote that will have little or no impact on today’s events. I disagree. The Israelis and Palestinians are now locked in tense negotiations about their future. If Israel would murder the father of the Palestinian nation, why should today’s Palestinians place any trust or faith in a nation that would commit such a crime? Why shouldn’t the Palestinians turn in disgust and say they want nothing to do with such murderers? I can’t speak for Palestinians and don’t pretend to. But the idea of making peace with Israeli leaders who conspired to murder one of Palestine’s heroes will be anathema to some and justifiably so. But for Bibi Netanyahu this will undoubtedly be just another one of those “artificial crises” he pooh-poohed in an interview yesterday.
The following is an earlier post I wrote detailing Israel’s long history of research into polonium. It sets the backdrop for what Israel did to Arafat by showing that Israeli chemical weapons scientists have long experimented with polonium. Israeli understands its lethality because its own researchers have been killed by it.
With news breaking in Al Jazeera this week about the possible poisoning of Yasser Arafat by polonium, I thought it worthwhile to examine an interesting line in Clayton Swisher’s report, which refers to an accident in an Israeli lab involving the material. Through further research, I discovered that this was the first nuclear accident in Israeli history and it took the lives of a number of Israeli researchers, both immediately after the accident and even decades later.
This report  by Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar is based on Michael Karpin’s book, The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What That Means for the World:
Dr. Dror Sadeh: One of earliest victims of Israeli polonium poisoning, died of cancer at age 60 after major 1957 radiation leak
According to the book, in 1957 a leak was discovered at a Weizmann Institute laboratory operated by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Traces of polonium 210 were found on the hands of Prof. Dror Sadeh, a physicist who researched radioactive materials, as well as on various objects in the professor’s home. The AEC handled the accident with deep secrecy. After a short investigation, whose results were not presented to even the workers, the lab was hermetically sealed for several months.
A month after the lab closed, a physics student died of leukemia. A few years later, Prof. Yehuda Wolfson, Sadeh’s direct supervisor, also died, and Prof. Amos de Shalit, the department’s director, died of cancer in 1969 at age 43.
When the leak was discovered, Sadeh was terribly anxious, but tests indicated he was well. But according to Karpin’s book, the tests did not include his bone marrow. Sadeh and his wife hid the facts from their family and friends until he died prematurely. The cause of death was cancer.
The Israeli authorities did not admit that the leak and the deaths were connected, but people close to Sadeh confirmed that the state took responsibility for the accident and compensated his family.
This obituary indicates Sadeh [above] –who later became a renowned astrophysicist, proved a fundamental principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and was the director of the Israeli space agency–died at age 60 in 1993.
Here is another source offering more information on the cause of the leak, and the scientists contaminated, including the graduate student who died:
The first nuclear accident in Israel took place before the reactor was operational. In the years 1956-1957 scientists in the Weizmann Institute were preparing for the construction of the reactor and the production of a bomb. “Material which was supposed to seal the nuclear substance and protect it from leaking cracked and radioactive materials leaked. This was discovered late, and high reading of nuclear material was found in the laboratory and in the bodies of some of the workers. High radiation was also found in the homes of the young scientists, articles they touched and even their children’s beds. This was reported by Maariv in 2006 after a period of censorship in these matters for nearly 50 years (a report by Chen Kotz-Bar).
…Dror Sadeh himself wrote: “During 1956-1957 I was working in the radioactive laboratory in the Weizmann Institute. I was an employee of the Israeli Nuclear Energy Committee. As part of my work I treated a radioactive source which emitted alpha rays. This source was coated with a very thin layer of plastic material designed so that all the radiation would be directed towards the target. For a long period of time there was no monitoring of the radiation in the institute. Then one day a test was conducted on a table at the lab, and Alpha radiation well exceeding normal level was detected. Even in my home radiation was detected. The lab was sealed for some months. In my urine tests no radiation was found, but no attempt to test other organs (e.g. bone marrow) was made. One month after the lab was closed one of the physics students died from blood cancer. As far as I can remember his name was Yonathan Ramberg.
Asia Ramberg, widow of Yonathan Ramberg (the student who died of leukemia) recalled: “I remember that someone from the institute came and said that he had to go as soon as possible to the hospital.” Bamberg was a graduate student at the Weizmann Institute at the time and was the youngest faculty member in Dror Sadeh’s group.
“Yonathan was 28 at the time. He was feeling quite ill and large spots started to appear on his body. I was not even scared; I just saw the bright side of things. We went to the hospital Friday and on Saturday they told me that he was very ill. The day after that, Sunday, was our second anniversary. I picked a few flowers, and when I got to the hospital I saw Yonathan dwindle in front of my eyes. He died the same day. I was in shock. My parents collected me from the hospital like a broken egg-shell. I was helpless. I barely spoke for three years. I did not investigate what happened. Nothing.”
It makes perfect sense that Israeli intelligence, learning about both the accident and its repercussions for the health of the lab workers, would be interested in learning everything it could about polonium poisoning. When you have a lemon, make lemonade. Clearly, Russia had a similar program because its polonium was used, likely by its intelligence agents, to poison Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
Entrance to the Israel Institute for Biological Research, Ness Ziona
Israel operates a major facility at Ness Ziona which experiments with chemical and biological agents. It would make sense if research was performed on polonium, it would’ve happened here.
Now that the PA has agreed to exhume Arafat’s body in Ramallah, further testing has at least a 50% chance of determining whether polonium killed him. Testing of his body tissues could also isolate the nuclear facility from which the polonium was produced. If Israel killed him, it would’ve been far smarter to have procured Russian polonium than to have used material from Israel’s Dimona reactor. But if the material is from Dimona, the killers would then be exposed.
Though we can’t know for sure whether Israel did it, we can see who is creeping out of the mire to debunk Al Jazeera. Josh Block and Lenny Ben David, both paid pro-Israel operatives (one formerly with Aipac and the second, the Israeli embassy) are circulating discredited claims that Arafat was a “sexual deviant” (Elie Leshem happily published this nonsense in The Times of Israel and justified it by falsely associating the term “pederast” with Arafat) who engaged in gay sex with his bodyguards and died of AIDS. The AIDS claims was convincingly debunked within the Al Jazeera documentary by a specialist who tested him (as did the French hospital where he died) and found him HIV negative. The gay sex smear was peddled in a smutty book by the Romanian ex-secret police chief under Ceausescu, who defected to the west. That was good enough for the “quality journalism” represented by the Times of Israel and its crusading, truth-seeking editor, Elie Leshem. ‘Nuff said.
The Jerusalem Post quotes an “expert” falsely claiming that polonium deteriorates so quickly that no traces of it could remain after eight years. This expert has no scientific training, and in fact has a PhD in political science and is a colonel in the IDF. Hussein Ibish, DC neocons’ favorite Arab, writes in Foreign Policy that the Al Jazeera story is bogus because the symptoms Arafat presented at death were inconsistent with polonium poisoning. Ibish offers no scientific support for his claims [Arafatuous]. In ad hominem tweets calling me “raving mad,” Ibish quotes a post I wrote in 2004, two weeks after Arafat died, speculating that he died of AIDS. This eight year-old post was first dredged up by Islamophobe pro-Israel blogger, David Lange. Neither Lange nor Ibish note that five years ago I posted that Sharon likely ordered the killing. If Arafat is found to have been poisoned by Polonium, that 2007 post will have been proven correct. In the world of intellectual sham inhabited by these two opinions, once expressed, turn into immutable stone
Returning to Arafat’s symptoms, at least one he exhibited, severe diarrhea, is consistent with such poisoning. Ibish, of course, doesn’t mention this. Though it is true that Litvinenko lost his hair and Arafat did not.
The fact that such figures have come out of the woodwork to protect Israel from culpability for Arafat’s death indicates there are those within Israel’s intelligence apparatus who want to obfuscate and confuse rather than shed light on these issues.
By Karin Laub and Mohammed Daraghmeh, Associated Press
November 08, 2013
RAMALLAH — Four investigations, hundreds of testimonies and stacks of medical reports on Yasser Arafat’s unexplained death in 2004 have failed to produce hard evidence of what killed him — and findings presented Friday only created more confusion.
Palestinian officials said a report they received from Russia on the role of radioactive polonium in Arafat’s death was inconclusive. They spoke just a day after Swiss scientists said the Palestinian leader was probably poisoned by the rare and extremely lethal substance.
Despite those discrepancies, the Swiss and Russian reports agreed that Arafat’s death “was not caused by old age or disease, but as a result of a toxic substance,” said Dr. Abdullah Bashir, a medical expert in the three-member Palestinian team that has been investigating Arafat’s death. This, he told a news conference, is in line with the long-standing Palestinian contention that Arafat was poisoned.
The reports revived Palestinian allegations that Israel was behind the attack, despite its denial.
Tawfik Tirawi at news conference November 8th, 2013
The Palestinian team’s leader, Tawfik Tirawi, said Israel had the technical means and the motive.
“I say, with all the details available about Yasser Arafat’s death, that he was killed, and that Israel killed him,” he said. The former Palestinian intelligence chief did not present evidence to back up the claims.
In the four years leading up to his death, Arafat’s relationship with his longtime nemesis, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had become increasingly hostile. Sharon, a hard-liner, blamed Arafat for encouraging anti-Israeli violence instead of working toward a peace deal and kept him isolated at his West Bank compound for extended periods.
Former Sharon aide Raanan Gissin reiterated Friday that Israel had nothing to do with Arafat’s death. “The Palestinians are using Israel as a scapegoat,” he said. “If Arafat was murdered, then he (the killer) should be sought among the heads of the Palestinian Authority.”
Ariel Sharon in 2003. Photo by PA.
Tirawi said his team would spare no effort to solve the mystery, but it’s not clear where an investigation could go from here, considering the Palestinians’ limited technical means. Tirawi said a decision on a possible international tribunal — like the one that investigated the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — would be up to Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas has not commented on the substance of the latest findings. A new probe could invite close scrutiny of Israel as well as Palestinian aides and bodyguards who surrounded Arafat in his compound.
Arafat died Nov. 11, 2004 at a French military hospital, a month after falling ill at his West Bank headquarters. At the time, French doctors said he died of a stroke and had a blood-clotting problem, but records were inconclusive about what caused that condition.
The Palestinians launched an investigation at the time, and Tirawi said Friday that it encompassed hundreds of statements from Palestinians and non-Palestinians in the West Bank and around the world. No suspects emerged and no arrests were made.
The investigation hit a dead end, and was only revived when the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera persuaded Arafat’s widow, Suha, last year to hand over his hospital bag with underwear, headscarves and other belongings. Mrs. Arafat has lived in exile since her husband’s death and is estranged from most of the Palestinian leadership.
The items in the bag were examined by Switzerland’s Institute for Radiation Physics, which found elevated traces of polonium.
Earlier this year, Arafat’s grave in his Ramallah compound was reopened. Swiss, Russian and French scientists were given samples of the remains and burial soil.
The Russians had been invited by Abbas who wanted another opinion, and the French team was part of a legal case Mrs. Arafat was pursuing in France. The French team has not yet released its findings.
The Swiss scientists said Thursday that they found elevated traces of polonium-210 and lead in Arafat’s remains, and that the timeframe of Arafat’s illness and death was consistent with poisoning from ingesting polonium.
Francois Bochud, a member of the Swiss team, said that the results “reasonably support the poisoning theory.”
Bashir, the Palestinian physician, said the Russian team sent its findings to the Palestinian Authority several days ago and the full report would be made public at a later time.
Bashir said that the Russian scientists did not find enough evidence to determine that polonium-210 “caused the acute radiation syndrome leading to death.”
He did not elaborate at the news conference. He later told The Associated Press that the Russian investigators did find elevated levels of polonium, but declined to answer further questions.
Al-Jazeera posted online what it said was a 15-page excerpt from the report by Russia’s Institute of Medical and Biological Research. Officials at the state-run institute were not available for comment late Friday on whether the excerpts are authentic.
In another twist, Al-Jazeera quoted the source from whom it obtained the report as saying the Russian government asked the scientists to keep the findings intentionally vague.
The station said the excerpts show that only four of 20 samples were examined by the Russian team.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
By Booman Tribune
November 06, 2013
I don’t understand why the Russian team said that Yassir Arafat had not been poisoned with polonium-210 and the Swiss team just said that he probably was. Here’s the reporting from October 15th:
Polonium-210 did not cause the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Vladimir Uyba, the physician at the helm of the Russian Medical-Biological Agency which carried out tests on the remains of the Nobel Peace prize laureate, told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday.
Arafat was 75 when he died in 2004 at a French military hospital in Percy. He suffered abdominal pain prior to dying of unknown causes.
‘Russian experts who conducted the test did not find traces of this substance’, said Uyba.
[This appears to be a quote from ANSAMed on 15 October, 2013]
And here is the reporting from today:
The Swiss scientists who tested Arafat’s remains after the exhumation of his body in November discovered levels of polonium at least 18 times higher than the norm in Arafat’s ribs, pelvis and in soil that absorbed his leaked bodily fluids…
…The Swiss report said that even taking into account the eight years since Arafat’s death and the quality of specimens taken from bone fragments and tissue scraped from his decayed corpse and shroud, the results “moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210″.
[And this one from the Guardian, November 6th, 2013]
Since we know that the Russians killed Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210 in London just two years after Arafat died, their denials here strike me as enormously suspicious. What I don’t know is what was going on in October 2004 between the Russians and the Palestinians that might have constituted a motive for the Russians to kill Arafat.
Naturally, the Israelis will be under suspicion, too, but the Russians are the only ones known to use this method to kill.
Scientists find at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive element in late Palestinian leader’s remains.
David Poort and Ken Silverstein, Al Jazeera Exclusive
November 07, 2013
Paris – Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.
A 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, which was obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, found unnaturally high levels of polonium in Arafat’s ribs and pelvis, and in soil stained with his decaying organs.
The Swiss scientists, along with French and Russian teams, obtained the samples last November after his body was exhumed from a mausoleum in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
Dave Barclay, UK forensic scientist.
Dave Barclay, a renowned UK forensic scientist and retired detective, told Al Jazeera that with these results he was wholly convinced that Arafat was murdered.
“Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning,” he said. “We found the smoking gun that caused his death. What we don’t know is who’s holding the gun at the time.”
“The level of polonium in Yasser Arafat’s rib…is about 900 milibecquerels,” Barclay said. “That is either 18 or 36 times the average, depending on the literature.”
Suha Arafat, the late Palestinian leader’s widow, received a copy of the report in Paris on Tuesday. “When they came with the results, I’m mourning Yasser again,” she said. “It’s like you just told me he died.”
The Swiss report only examined the question of what killed Arafat. It did not address the question of whether he was deliberately poisoned or how.
By October of 2004, towards the end of the second intifada, Arafat had been holed up for more than two years in his Ramallah presidential compound, which Israeli troops had surrounded and partly razed. He was elderly and frail but his medical reports show he “was in good overall health and did not have any particular risk factors,” the Swiss report states.
Widow Suha Arafat and daughter Zawra have welcomed news that a Swiss lab will test the remains of Yasser Arafat for polonium poisoning. Photo by AFP
On the evening of October 12, Arafat suddenly fell ill after eating a meal. Based on his symptoms – nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain – his personal doctor initially diagnosed flu.
But Arafat’s health deteriorated swiftly and Egyptian and Tunisian doctors flown in to see him could not pinpoint the source of his sickness.
On October 29, a wan and weak Arafat was carried in a wheelchair from his headquarters. He waved and blew kisses to the crowd outside and flew to Jordan by helicopter. From there a French government plane carried him to Paris for emergency treatment at Percy military hospital.
French doctors were unable to diagnose or halt Arafat’s decline and he soon lapsed into a coma. On November 11, Arafat, who symbolised the fight for Palestinian statehood, died at the age of 75.
Doctors at Percy hospital did not conduct an autopsy, announce the cause of death or release his medical records, which heightened speculation about the cause of his rapid demise. Many Palestinian officials close to Arafat believed he had been poisoned. In the West, rumours circulated that he had died of Aids. Some doctors suggested leukaemia or a food-borne illness had killed Arafat; others proposed that he had simply succumbed to old age.
By 2011, when Al Jazeera began an investigation, Arafat’s death was a cold case. During the investigation, Suha Arafat gave the network access to her late husband’s full medical records and a bag of his belongings, including clothing he wore during his final days. Tests conducted by the Swiss scientists who issued the new report found elevated levels of polonium-210, one of the element’s isotopes, in blood, sweat and urine stains on Arafat’s clothes.
In July 2012, Al Jazeera broadcast the results of its investigation in What Killed Arafat? The documentary triggered a French murder investigation and led to the exhumation of Arafat’s remains. Sixty samples of his body tissue were taken and twenty each distributed to the Swiss team, a French team of judges and forensic experts assigned to the murder investigation, and a Russian group invited at the request of the Palestinian Authority.
The Russians are expected to disclose their results soon. The French are not expected to release their results before the murder investigation concludes.
Saad Djebbar, Suha Arafat’s lawyer, said the Swiss report was a “significant piece of the jigsaw puzzle” that could help the French murder inquiry.
A rare but lethal poison
Polonium is a soft, silvery-grey metal found in uranium ore. The isotope polonium-210 emits highly radioactive alpha particles, but they do not travel more than a few centimetres in air and are “stopped by a sheet of paper or by the dead layer of outer skin on our bodies,” says the International Atomic Energy Agency.
For that reason polonium-210 is not a risk to human health as long as it remains outside the body. But a dose of 0.1 of a microgramme – the size of a speck of dust weighing less than a millionth of a snowflake – would be fatal if it were ingested in food or liquids or inhaled in contaminated air.
Only a handful of people are reported to have died from polonium poisoning. The most famous case involves Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned dissident who received political asylum from the British government and lived in London.
Litvinenko died in November 2006, three weeks after meeting several Russians, including a one-time KGB officer, at London’s Millennium Hotel. A British public prosecutor alleges that the Russians were acting at the behest of their government and poisoned Litvinenko by lacing his tea with polonium-210.
Polonium-210 is “one of the most obscure, most bizarre, and yet most merciless of poisons,” writes Alan Cowell in The Terminal Spy, a book about the Litvinenko case.
It was used as a trigger for early nuclear weapons and subsequently as a power source for satellites and spacecraft. However, polonium-210 is extremely rare and would be difficult to obtain without the help of a government or access to a nuclear reactor. It also requires considerable scientific know-how to handle in a safe manner.
Polonium-210 is manufactured by bombarding bismuth-209 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Only about 100 grammes are produced each year, almost all in Russia.
In terms of motive, the chief suspects would be Arafat’s Palestinian rivals or the Israeli government, his sworn enemy. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister in 2004, viewed Arafat as a “terrorist” and called his death “a turning point in Middle Eastern history”. A year earlier, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said killing Arafat ”is definitely one of the options”.
An Israeli attempt to kill Arafat by bombing his compound in Ramallah, 2002. Photo by AFP /Getty
However, Israel has always vehemently denied it had anything to do with Arafat’s sickness or death and to date no evidence has emerged that implicates it.
While Barclay expressed confidence in the cause of death, he said it would be a difficult case to solve.
“The main problem is the timeframe,” he said. “If this was a murder that happened yesterday you’d have witnesses and cell phone records, emails, bank transfers. In a nine-year-old case that type of information will be hard to obtain.”
“We can’t point a finger at anyone,” Suha Arafat said. “The French are conducting a serious investigation. It takes time.”
Al Jazeera’s Investigations Unit answers frequently asked questions about the investigation into the killing of Arafat.
November 06, 2013
Why does this all come out now, nine years after Arafat’s death?
The idea to investigate Arafat’s death came during a meeting between Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher and Suha Arafat in November 2011. Swisher met Arafat’s widow and surviving daughter in Malta, originally with the intent of convincing them to allow access to Arafat’s unpublished personal diaries. Upon learning that all Arafat’s medical files were with his widow, Swisher shifted his focus.
By late January 2012, Swisher gained possession of Arafat’s French and Palestinian medical files and, crucially, a green duffel bag containing Yasser Arafat’s final possessions. Suha Arafat had also provided written permission to ask questions of doctors who treated Arafat, as well as to assign his medical files and last personal effects to some of the best forensic experts in the world.
On February 3, 2012, Arafat’s medical file and the green duffel bag were turned over to the Lausanne University Center for Legal Medicine, which initiated a rigorous re-examination of the case beginning with the medical file. They ordered toxicology tests on hair samples discovered within the bag, later confirmed to be Arafat’s through DNA testing. When conventional poisons were not discovered, the Swiss lab began to look for more exotic ones, including polonium-210, through their affiliate Institute for Radiation Physics (IRA).
Report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne
In March 2012 the IRA discovered a urine stain from Arafat’s underwear that was “strongly contaminated” with polonium-210 as well as abnormal polonium levels from other areas visibly stained with blood (from a hospital cap taken from Arafat’s body) and sweat stains from the collar of his athletic jumper.
After performing a second series of measurements the scientists discovered that a majority of the high levels of polonium from the stains were unsupported by the presence of radioactive lead-210, which meant they had originated in a nuclear reactor. This hypothesis was put forward in Al Jazeera’s July 3, 2012 broadcast of What Killed Arafat? which followed the trajectory of Swisher’s entire investigation.
At the conclusion of the film, widow Suha Arafat began a campaign for her late husband’s body to be exhumed for testing. A French murder inquiry was also opened which paved the way for a court to receive any further evidence from the teams studying samples of Arafat’s corpse.
The results have just been released.
Where was the gym bag containing Arafat’s belongings kept until it was given to Al Jazeera?
Suha Arafat stated that the bag was kept in safely custody for the past eight years, primarily with her lawyer and in a safe room on the fourth floor of a building in Paris. She did not elaborate on the precise address. She stated that it was kept there until it was retrieved in late January 2012 for Clayton Swisher to deliver to the Swiss laboratory.
Could the elevated levels of polonium in Arafat’s body have come from excessive smoking?
No. Deborah Blum, a science writer with Wired, put forward this scientifically unfounded hypothesis following the broadcast of What Killed Arafat?
Writing in the Lancet medical journal in October, the Swiss scientists said: “From our own routine measurements, a heavy smoker excretes typically 0.015 mBq/ml of urine… this would only account for a negligible proportion of the Po210 [polonium-210] that were measured on Mr Arafat’s belongings.”
The levels of polonium measured in Arafat’s urine were all elevated and in one case reached 180 milibecquerels (mBq).
Also, according to Arafat’s medical records, he was a non-smoker and tests on Arafat in 2004 for cotinine, a substance found in cigarettes, were negative.
A persistent rumour claimed that Arafat was infected with HIV. Where does the rumour originate?
Rumours that Arafat had HIV are linked to an interview on Al Jazeera with Dr Ashraf Al Kurdi, a former Jordanian health ministry official and one-time personal doctor to Arafat in a broadcast made on August 4, 2007.
In it, Dr Kurdi claimed to have received an email from French medical doctors who treated Arafat, claiming to have discovered “the AIDS microbe” in Arafat’s blood.
Dr Kurdi died and the email has never been seen.
More to the point, medical records and blood tests taken by both Arab and French doctors confirm that Arafat did not have HIV or AIDS.
Tunisian doctors who visited Arafat in Ramallah shortly before his death did two HIV tests, both of which were negative.
French medical records of Yasser Arafat, released by Al Jazeera, also confirm Arafat did not have AIDS or HIV.
Dr Toufik Shabba, one of the Tunisian doctors involved, told Al Jazeera in What Killed Arafat?: “HIV is my specialty. There is absolutely no way there is HIV.”
The rumour that Arafat had AIDS also fed another conspiracy theory, that Yasser Arafat was a closet homosexual. Indeed, numerous interviews with those closest to him confirmed this was false.
The AIDS/homosexual allegations originated from a former Romanian intelligence officer linked to right-wing, neoconservative groups.
Why wasn’t there an autopsy done on Arafat’s body after his death in 2004?
A widely held but mistaken belief is that Suha Arafat refused the offer of an autopsy.
But French doctors never offered an autopsy and Suha Arafat did not request one.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) also met at the time chose not to order the procedure.
In Killing Arafat, senior PA leader Nabil Shaath explained that after Arafat’s death, “the question really then was how to continue, how to move on, and that is really the question that needed to be tackled at the time.
“We felt that going into an autopsy would really make it very difficult for the people and very difficult for the memory of Arafat and would turn what is a martyrdom case into a police criminal case.
“Really, people were not really ready, at least in our mind, for turning this into a criminal police case,” Shaath told Al Jazeera.
Did Al Jazeera pay for any evidence in the investigation?
Why are the Swiss, French and the Russians involved in the investigation?
Al Jazeera chose to work with the Swiss scientists from Lausanne University in the What Killed Arafat? documentary because they were one of the world’s leading authorities on forensic pathology in general, with access to their own toxicology and radiological labs.
After their results suggested polonium was used as a poison, they became the lead scientists on the case, urging exhumation and testing of body tissue to provide more data.
A French team is involved because France opened a murder inquiry in August 2012, after Suha Arafat submitted a legal case at the court of Nanterre.
Three French magistrates are investigating the death of Yasser Arafat. They attended Arafat’s exhumation in November, bringing a scientific and pathology team with them.
Just weeks before Arafat’s scheduled exhumation, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announced that a Russian team would also participate in the testing. This followed an October 2012 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Amman Jordan. President Abbas has especially close relations with the Russians, going back to his studies in Moscow in the 1970s.
Who was spying on Al Jazeera’s producers in Ramallah and why?
The security agents following the Al Jazeera team in Ramallah were Palestinian Authority general security officers reporting to General Majed Al Faraj.
When Al Jazeera confirmed this activity was ordered by his office, Faraj sent an apology to Al Jazeera via an intermediary, along with a pledge that it would not continue.
Al Jazeera’s team suspected they were being followed in early November 2012 and confirmed it with video evidence on November 13, shortly before the exhumation.
They confirmed this by taking bogus journeys around Ramallah, which exposed their pursuers.
They later caught one of the surveillance agents rummaging through the baggage and equipment of an Al Jazeera cameraman’s room at the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah.
At that moment in time, Al Jazeera was tracking down and interviewing aides to Yasser Arafat who had been close to him when he first fell ill.
It appears the Palestinian Authority had put the Al Jazeera team under surveillance in order to gain insider knowledge of their investigation.