It’s been eight years since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, but the government of France has finally agreed to open an official inquiry into the cause of his death, based on allegations raised by his widow and a TV investigation that he was poisoned.
Talk has swirled for years in the Arab world that Arafat was poisoned, but this is the first time that an official government investigation has looked into the matter.
When Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died in a French military hospital in 2004, the official cause of death was reported to be a massive stroke. Some Palestinian leaders claimed that he was poisoned by Israel, which Israeli leaders denied.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, convinced television station Al-Jazeera to bring Arafat’s clothes and other belongings—provided by Suha—to a Swiss lab for testing. The tests found evidence of elevated levels of a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance called polonium-210. Suha and Arafat’s daughter Zawra lodged the murder complaint on July 31.
“This is a good step forward, any step aimed at revealing the truth about Yasser Arafat’s death is good,” said Abdallah Basher, who heads a Palestinian medical committee investigating Arafat’s death.
Now the scientists need to test Arafat’s bones, though some experts say it may already be too late for conclusive answers. Scientists say that polonium decays quickly and that an autopsy needs to be done right away. Polonium is a highly toxic substance rarely found outside military and scientific circles. It was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with the poison.
According to Basher, scientists from the Swiss radiology lab at the Lausanne University Hospital Centre would travel to the West Bank in the next few weeks to take samples from Arafat’s remains — even though the matter of his exhumation is still in limbo. Arafat, who died at age 75, is buried in a mausoleum in the walled government compound where he spent the last three years of his life under Israeli siege. His widow said she approves of an exhumation.
According to a report on the French news website Slate.fr, which published a copy of the medical report into Arafat’s death, his symptoms were not consistent with polonium poisoning.
After suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, acute diarrhea and an abnormally low amount of platelets in the blood, Arafat was sent to the Percy military hospital in Clamart outside Paris. But doctors conducted a wide range of tests and were unable to determine the exact cause of his illness.
A few days after his arrival in France, Arafat lapsed into a coma and he died on November 11, 2004. No autopsy was conducted.