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Arafat poisoned?

Published : Aug 10, 2012 00:00 IST

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LOAY ABU HAYKEL/REUTERS

LOAY ABU HAYKEL/REUTERS

New evidence provided by Swiss scientists suggests that Yasser Arafats death may have been due to polonium poisoning.

It was long suspected that the legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did not die of natural causes. The authorities at the French military hospital where he spent his last days have been keeping a mysterious silence about the factors that led to his death. The French doctors who treated him in his final days had said that they could not establish the cause of death. French officials, citing privacy laws, had refused to give the details of his illness. Now an investigative report by the Al Jazeera network has come up with strong evidence that the icon of the Palestinian resistance movement died as a result of polonium poisoning.

Polonium is a rare radioactive element that leads to a slow and painful death. Switzerlands Institute of Radiation Physics has stated that it found surprisingly high levels of polonium-210 on Arafats clothing. Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had defected to Britain, died in November 2006 after polonium was allegedly slipped into his cup of tea in a famous London restaurant. One gram of polonium is sufficient to kill a human being.

Ashraf al Kurdi, Arafats personal physician for 25 years, has gone on record stating that the Palestinian leader was poisoned. He described Arafats death as stealth assassination. The nine-month-long investigations into his death have found elevated levels of polonium in his toothbrush and even on the trademark keffiyeh (headdress) Arafat always wore in public.

Suha Arafat, the widow of the Palestinian leader, announced in the second week of July that she was all set to launch a court case in France to force the government there to start formal investigations into the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death eight years ago. Madame Arafat hopes that the authorities will be able to establish the exact circumstances of her husbands death and uncover the truth, so that justice can be done, her lawyer said in a statement.

Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in early July to Suha Arafats request to exhume her husbands body, which currently rests in a limestone mausoleum in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas said that the body could be exhumed provided there was no objection from the religious authorities.

During a visit to Paris in the first week of July, Abbas met with the new French President, Francois Hollande, and asked him to form an international committee under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council to probe the death of Arafat. Some devout Muslims may raise objections to the exhumation, but the majority of Palestinians want to know the exact reasons for the untimely demise of their leader. The top Muslim cleric in the occupied territories has also given his assent for the exhumation of the body.

The Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics has said that it needs to examine Arafats remains so that it can come to a definitive conclusion about the causes of his death. There are fears that the investigators may not be able to establish the truth as polonium has a short half-life 138 days.

Tunisia, where Arafat spent his last years in exile before returning to the West Bank, has called for an emergency meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers to discuss his death.

Elimination target

For more than three years before his death, Arafat was a virtual prisoner of the Israeli war machine, which had besieged his headquarters in Ramallah after the eruption of the second intifada (uprising) of Palestinians in 2001. His residence was virtually reduced to rubble. Only a couple of rooms of his headquarters were left intact by the Israeli army which had surrounded the area. Arafat suddenly collapsed in October 2004. He was airlifted to a Paris hospital where he slipped into a coma and died on November 11, 2004, at the age of 75.

Uri Dan, an Israeli journalist working for the Maariv newspaper group who had interviewed Ariel Sharon, had said that the then Israeli Prime Minister had refused to deny Israeli involvement in the demise of Arafat. Sharon had said before Arafats death that the Palestinian leader had no insurance policy. Dan and Sharon enjoyed a close personal and political relationship.

During the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led by Sharon, then Israels Defence Minister, there were orders to eliminate Arafat. Sharons close political associate, Ehud Olmert, had threatened to eliminate Arafat. Olmert went on to become the Prime Minister after Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke. Sharon lies in an irreversible coma. Olmert faces a jail term for corruption after an Israeli court recently found him guilty of corrupt practices.

Experts point out that Israel had the expertise and the wherewithal to eliminate Arafat, whom it considered a stumbling block to its expansionist policies in the occupied territories. Israel is known to have made great strides in nuclear and biological warfare capabilities. It has the largest biowarfare facility in West Asia. The Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona has the capability of producing polonium. Swiss scientists have said that murder by polonium can only be executed by scientifically advanced nations with specialised reactors. Israel is the only country in the region that has such a sophisticated nuclear reactor.

Nasser al-Qidwa, Arafats nephew, whom many consider his political heir, has accused Israel of using polonium to kill the Palestinian leader. He said that he no longer had any doubts that Arafat was assassinated by poisoning. Al-Qidwa is the head of the Arafat Foundation. The Foundation announced in the second week of July that it was releasing all the medical files it had on Arafats final days, including many from the French military hospital where he breathed his last.

Israel had spread the lie that the Palestinian leader had died as a result of complications arising out of AIDS. It was only after the death of the Russian spy in 2006 that polonium first came into the picture. If it is proved that it was polonium that killed Arafat, then Israel will get the dubious credit of being the first country to use the substance for targeted assassinations.

Israel anyway has a long track record of resorting to cloak-and-dagger targeted killings using original though unscrupulous means. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in exile, was nearly killed in 1997 after agents of the Mossad (the Israeli secret service) sprayed levofentanyl, a toxic agent, into his ear. Mahmoud al-Mabouh, another Hamas leader, was killed in a Dubai hotel in 2010 by Mossad agents. They first injected him with succinylcholine, which immobilised him. The Mossad agents suffocated him to death.

Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and since the 1980s a peace activist and influential columnist, has written that the new revelations have not come as a surprise to him. Avnery was the first senior Israeli politician to meet with Arafat publicly and that too when the bloody war unleashed on Lebanon by Israel was raging in 1982. In his widely published columns, he had been predicting since the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed that Arafat continued to be a prime target for assassination. He has said that although there is no absolutely foolproof evidence of Israeli complicity available at this juncture, it is more or less certain that Sharon, after getting the tacit approval of Washington, carried out the targeted assassination.

By October 2004, the George Bush administration, according to reports in the American media, had agreed to Arafat being removed from his post. Arafat was the man who was able to make peace with Israel, willing to do so, and more important to get his people, including the Islamists, to accept it. This would have put an end to the (illegal Israeli) settlement enterprise. Thats why he was poisoned, concluded Avnery.

The death of Arafat resulted in the P.A. leadership passing into the hands of people with whom the Israeli government was happier to deal with. The Israeli settlements started expanding at a more rapid pace. Many Palestinians accuse the present leadership in Ramallah of being a quisling leadership that stood aside while Israel reduced the West Bank to a Bantustan, pockmarked by Jewish settlements.

Hamas, influenced by the Islamists, has filled to an extent the political vacuum left behind by Arafat. But the relentless hostility of the West coupled with the Israeli blockade has reduced the Gaza Strip to an open-air prison. Now there are signs that the Hamas too is buckling under the sustained pressure and getting ready to strike yet another compromise with Israel. However, Meshal, while on a recent visit to Tunisia, urged the Fatah, which rules the West Bank, to join hands and unitedly pursue the Zionists over the blood of Arafat.

There is already pressure from the West on the P.A. to stop the investigations surrounding the death of Arafat. A Palestinian official told the media in Ramallah that Washington and Paris were putting serious obstacles in the way of an international probe. Israel has been quick to deny any hand in the assassination. Washington has, meanwhile, conveyed to the P.A. that new investigations into Arafats death could put the peace process further off-track. P.A. officials now say that they will decide on exhuming Arafats body only after reviewing the reports from the Swiss laboratory. The Swiss investigators have said that they can only come to a definitive conclusion after examining the bones of the departed leader.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 10, 2012.)

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