Poisoned with polonium

Swiss forensic tests prove that the death ofPalestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 was caused by the ingestion of the radioactive poison polonium-210.

Published : Nov 27, 2013 12:30 IST

September 26, 2001: Yasser Arafat with Israeli Foreign Minister (now Prime Minister) Shimon Peres at the Gaza airport in Rafah.

September 26, 2001: Yasser Arafat with Israeli Foreign Minister (now Prime Minister) Shimon Peres at the Gaza airport in Rafah.

THE results of the tests conducted by a high-level Swiss investigation team seem to have proved conclusively that the death of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat on November 11, 2004, was a result of polonium poisoning. The results, released in the first week of November found high levels of polonium-210 in the remains of Arafat’s body, which were exhumed earlier in the year at the request of his widow, Suha Arafat. High levels of the highly poisonous substance were also found in his personal belongings, which were tested earlier. “Our results are fully in the same line of the previous results [of the investigations of Arafat’s belongings]. They actually reinforce our results,” said Francois Bochud, the Director of the Institute of Radiophysics in Lausanne, Switzerland. He said Arafat’s death must have occurred within a month after he ingested the radioactive poison. The levels of polonium found in his ribs, pelvis and the soil surrounding his body were at least 18 times higher than normal, the report said.

“What we know of the timeline between the ingestion of the radioactive poison and death is that it usually lasts about one month. This is commonly observed in radioactive poisoning,” Bochud told the media. The prestigious Swiss institute has concluded that its “observations are coherent with a hypothesis of poisoning”. Bochud added that in any case nobody “accidentally or voluntarily absorbs a source of polonium—it is not something that appears in the atmosphere just like that”.

However, a Russian forensic report that was quoted by Palestinian investigators claimed that there was insufficient evidence to conclusively support the theory that Arafat died as a result of polonium poisoning. Samples were taken from Arafat’s exhumed body by Swiss, Russian and French investigators. The Russian investigators, while not denying that the Palestinian leader had ingested polonium, said that there was “not sufficient evidence to support the decision that polonium-210 caused acute radiation syndrome leading to death”. The Russian investigations also found large amounts of radioactive isotopes in the Palestinian leader’s remains. The Russian report “only moderately supports the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210”.

The French pathologists have not revealed their findings so far. Arafat died in a French military hospital. The French authorities chose not to conduct an autopsy after his death. They had maintained that there was no request for the procedure from either Arafat’s family or the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). A French court has, however, ordered an inquiry into the suspicious circumstances leading to the death.

The Palestinians were, from the beginning, suspicious about the way their leader had died. Many influential Palestinian leaders had blamed Israel for his death. Tawfiq Tirawi, the intelligence chief of the P.A. under Arafat who now heads the Palestinian committee looking into the circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death, said after the Swiss institute released its report: “Our efforts are ongoing, to find out who stands behind the death of Arafat and who has the technical and scientific means for this. We consider Israel the first, fundamental and only suspect in Yasser Arafat’s assassination.” He rebutted rumours that the poisoning could even have been the handiwork of members of the entourage that was holed up with Arafat in his residence in Ramallah [West Bank]. Israeli forces had occupied Ramallah, surrounding Arafat’s residence and making him a virtual prisoner in the last two and a half years of his life. Israel had blockaded Arafat in his compound with the tacit approval of the United States.

Arafat’s widow has once again raised the suspicion that a “close circle” that surrounded Arafat in his last years had a hand in his death. “We are revealing a real crime, a political crime,” she told Reuters in Paris after receiving the results of the Swiss forensic tests. She pointed out that Israel had described her husband as “an obstacle to peace” in the period before his demise. She said that polonium may have been administered by someone in “his close circle” because experts on the subject told her that polonium would have been put in his coffee, tea or water. Israelis may have provided the polonium but somebody close to Arafat would have had to either make him inhale or consume the substance. Suha Arafat asked the P.A. to fully probe the circumstances leading to the death of the “Father of Palestine”. She has vowed to pursue the case, along with her daughter Zahwa, in European courts and elsewhere to ensure that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice.

Wasel Abu Yusef, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, has called for an international inquiry into the death of Arafat. “The results prove that Arafat was poisoned with polonium, and this substance is owned by states, not people, meaning that the crime was committed by a state,” he said. Another PLO executive committee member, Qais Abd el Karim, called for an “independent and internationally credible investigation into this crime”. He held Israel responsible for the “crime of the century”. Karim said only Israel had the rationale to commit the crime and added that it would be difficult for the P.A. to continue with the ongoing peace talks as the majority of Palestinians would find them “improper”. The P.A. had until recently refused the demand for an autopsy. It was the sheer persistence of Suha Arafat and the demand of the French court that led to the exhumation of the body.

Nasser Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew, told The Guardian newspaper that the P.A. was not keen that the Palestinian people know the truth about “the great crime” as it would have meant the end of the peace process. The unravelling of the “great crime” started with the efforts of an American investigative journalist, Clayton Swisher, who had become close to Arafat in his last years. Swisher, who had a stint as a U.S. intelligence agent, had raised serious concerns about the circumstances leading to Arafat’s death. The 75-year-old Palestinian leader was in good health when he suddenly took ill after having lunch. Swisher convinced the Al Jazeera network to do an investigative story on Arafat’s death. A documentary titled “What killed Arafat?” released by Al Jazeera in 2012 revealed that some of his personal belongings, including his toothbrush and kaffiyeh (his trademark head scarf), had traces of polonium. This gave rise to the demand, led by Suha Arafat, that his body be exhumed. The Lancet , a leading medical journal, in an article published on October 12, supported the hypothesis that Arafat was a victim of polonium poisoning. A British scientist, Professor Paddy Regan, an expert on radiation detection, told the BBC that the Swiss scientists had made a “pretty strong statement” by saying that Arafat was poisoned with polonium. Another British forensic scientist, David Barclay, told Al Jazeera that there was “conclusive evidence” that the level of polonium in Arafat’s body was very high. The report, he said, represented a “smoking gun”. He said it was now the duty of the international community to find out “who was holding the gun at the time”. Only around 100 grams of polonium are produced every year. Only countries with nuclear reactors are able to produce them, and Israel is the sole nuclear power in the region. Israel has access to polonium from its Dimona nuclear reactor.

Assassination as a tool Israel has since its inception used assassination as a tool of foreign policy. Many top Palestinian leaders had been targeted successfully before Arafat. Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, escaped an assassination attempt literally by the skin of his teeth in 1996. Ariel Sharon, who was Prime Minister of Israel at the time of Arafat’s death, told the American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who works for Bloomberg news service, that in all 13 attempts had been made on Arafat’s life by the Israeli security services. “All the governments in many years, Labour, Likud, all of them, made an effort—and I want to use a subtle term for the American reader—to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.” Sharon had threatened to eliminate Arafat just weeks before his death, saying that the Palestinian leader would meet the same fate that befell Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al Rantissi, both of whom were killed by Israeli security forces.

Israeli President Shimon Peres admitted to The New York Times in an interview in January that he had to use his considerable influence in the security establishment of the country to ensure that Arafat remained unharmed in the days prior to the signing of the Oslo agreement. He implied that Arafat was allowed to remain alive as Israel needed a negotiating partner they could do business with. He went on to add that Arafat should not have been assassinated as without him “the current situation is more complicated”.

At a Cabinet meeting in 2003, the Israeli government issued a warning that it would remove “the obstacle” Arafat at a time of its own choosing. Ehud Olmert, Deputy Prime Minister at the time, further clarified that killing Arafat was “one of the options”. The then Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, was caught on tape telling Sharon in January 2002 that there was an urgent need to get rid of Arafat. Tel Aviv and Washington viewed Arafat as a stumbling block to the so-called road map for peace they had charted out for the Palestinians. Israeli settlement activity was proceeding at a feverish pace meanwhile. Arafat’s charisma, coupled with his refusal to cater to the ever-increasing demands for more concessions from Israel, had kept the various Palestinian forces united. Arafat’s death caused a split within the Palestinian movement, damaging his long-cherished dream of statehood for Palestine.

The Israeli government has vehemently denied all accusations that it had a hand in the poisoning of Arafat. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed that the Swiss investigation reports were “inconclusive at best” and was “more soap opera than science”.

Silvan Shalom, who was the Israeli Foreign Minister at the time of Arafat’s demise, claimed that the security forces were given strict instructions that the Palestinian leader should not be harmed physically. Not surprisingly, not many people were willing to vouch for Israel’s innocence, given its track record.

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