Who Killed Yasser Arafat?
By Irris MaklerNovember 29, 2012
The Israelis swear it was HIV, the Palestinians swear it was polonium… will digging up his bones settle anything?
On Tuesday morning, men in black suits clambered busily around the limestone mausoleum in the centre of Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat lies buried, still making headlines eight years after his death. An international medical whodunnit is being played out in the West Bank, following investigations in France and Switzerland, lubricated with money from Qatar.
The polished sandstone usually gleams, but it was an overcast morning, the first cold day of winter, and much of the structure had been obscured by scaffolding and blue plastic sheeting set up by the Palestinian Authority. The media was kept at a distance by barriers, while Arafat’s body was dug up so scientists could take bone samples for testing. The cameramen complained there was nothing to see.
When he was buried here on November 12, 2004, the centre of Ramallah was full — a sea of people. I was in that crowd, so vast and teeming that it picked us up and carried us along, our feet not touching the ground. Palestinians climbed trees and scaled walls, waiting for the chopper carrying Arafat’s body. The crowd scattered when it landed, and then reformed into a single entity, like an amoeba, closing back around it.
This time, the space was empty, except for journalists.
Arafat’s body was being exhumed on the orders of his most faithful followers and his widow, Suha Arafat, over the objections of other members of his family. They were doing it because they wanted to know once and for all whether he had been poisoned.
“It’s painful, and a shock, especially for me and my daughter, but if there is a crime it must be uncovered,” Suha Arafat said in Paris. Arafat had died in a French hospital and her complaint to French police three months ago that he had been killed led them to open an inquiry.
Bone samples were taken for testing by three groups of scientists — French, Swiss and Russian — and after 10 hours Arafat’s remains were re-interred. The scientists’ work will be coordinated by a Palestinian investigation team.
“We are going to solve the secrets behind the late President Arafat’s death,” said General Tawfik Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian team. “We ourselves have proofs that President Arafat was assassinated and we will continue in this investigation until we find the detailed information pertaining to this.”
Almost no one, it seems, considers the possibility of death by natural causes, although Arafat was 75 years old and had been unwell for some time. He also hadn’t had an easy life, spending his last few years a virtual prisoner, unable to leave his Ramallah compound; during his years in exile he moved from one safe house to another, never spending two nights in a row in the same location. But this is the Middle East. Natural causes don’t come into it.
General Tirawi points the finger at Israel. “We base our proofs and our beliefs on the statements of the Israeli leadership,” he said, “Its political leadership and its security leadership, which state clearly, ‘We must end the life of President Arafat’.”
For its part, Israel has always denied killing Arafat.
“This has nothing to do with us,” said Israeli government spokesman Yigal Palmor. “They can do all the tests they like, we have nothing to fear. It’s a settling of accounts among the Palestinian leadership; another chapter in a Palestinian soap opera, a dans macabre, based on conspiracy theories.”
Other Israelis will tell you that it is well known Yasser Arafat died of HIV/AIDS.
Conspiracy theories flourish where facts are few. When Arafat died, no autopsy was conducted and his medical records were not released to the public. The two camps — poisoning vs HIV/AIDS — became more entrenched.
To understand why we don’t know the cause of Arafat’s death, we have to go back to the days not of that extraordinary funeral but those preceding it, when the ailing Arafat was airlifted from the West Bank to the Percy Military Training Hospital in Paris. He had often lived apart from his wife Suha for long periods — she in Tunis, or Paris, he in Ramallah — though she denies that they had officially separated. By the time of this illness she hadn’t seen him in four years. But once Arafat was being treated in the Paris hospital, Suha stepped back in to the picture as The Grieving Wife.
She was the one the hospital deferred to, and she kept his comrades away from his bedside. In many ways Yasser Arafat was married to his political movement, Fatah, and the Fatah men had never liked Suha Tawil. She was Christian, she was blonde, she was young — he was more than twice her age when they married — and she was mouthy, often publicly castigating Arafat’s cohorts for their behaviour.
In the hospital, it was Suha who made the decisions. She sidelined Fatah. They muttered darkly that she was able to take control like that because was because she was having an affair with Jacques Chirac. She called Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera shouting that the Fatah leaders were only interested in the succession, not in Arafat’s health.
“I want the Palestinian people to be aware of the scope of this conspiracy. They want to bury him alive.”
Fatah leader Salah Taamri snapped back, “We are Yasser Arafat’s family. We knew Yasser Arafat even before Mrs Suha Arafat was born. We care for Yasser Arafat and no one has the right to deny the truth from the Palestinian people.”
After Arafat died, they continued hissing at each other over his corpse.
(In 2005 it came to light that the French hospital tested Arafat for almost every conceivable illness. They concluded he was suffering from a blood disorder that leads to the formation of small blood clots throughout the body, which is known as disseminated intravascular coagulation. DIC can result from a number of diseases, so this doesn’t reveal the cause of his death.)
In 2007, the HIV theory received support from an unexpected source — Arafat’s personal physician himself. Dr Ashraf Al Kurdi, a cardiologist and former head of the health department in Jordan, had been Arafat’s doctor for the past 18 years.
“They usually called me even if he had a cold,” he told the Jordanian news website Amman, complaining about Suha Arafat’s failure to consult him at the end, or to allow him to visit Arafat in the French hospital, or to see the body after his death. He also criticised the fact that no autopsy had been held.
Dr Al Kurdi claimed the French doctors told him that there had been HIV found in Arafat’s blood, but that he had not died of AIDS. Earlier on the same day, he had been interviewed live on Al Jazeera and when he made this point, the programme immediately terminated the interview.
If they had let him continue, he would have told them, as he’d told the Jordanian website, that he believed that Arafat had been injected with HIV to mask the effects of some other lingering poison. He married both conspiracy theories: it was HIV and poison. Dr Al Kurdi is no longer alive, so it is not possible to check any details with him.
Five years later, in July 2012, Al Jazeera English produced a bombshell. Suha gave them a bag of Arafat’s possessions, including his famous black and white keffiye, a fur hat and some other clothes, and a toothbrush he had used in his last weeks. Al Jazeera sent these items to a leading Swiss forensic laboratory for testing. At the Institute for Radiation Physics in Lausanne they found raised levels of the radioactive isotope polonium.
Discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, polonium is highly toxic, and Marie Curie’s daughter became one of its first casualties when she developed leukaemia after an accidental exposure. A second prominent casualty was the renegade KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by polonium which was slipped into his tea, in London in 2006.
This made the Palestinians even more certain that Israel was responsible for Arafat’s death, because polonium has to be produced in an accelerator or a nuclear reactor. It is not something an ordinary individual can easily go and buy.
Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor disputes this.
“There is no mystery here. Arafat didn’t die on a desert island, he died in a French hospital. They ran every test. The answers are there in the medical file. Why don’t they publish it? And where and why has Suha been hiding that bag of Arafat’s for eight years? Who else had access to it? In criminal cases the chain of evidence is important; you have to be able to show something hasn’t been tampered with. And here we have an eight-year hole in the chain of evidence.”
After the Al Jazeera program was broadcast this past July, Darcy Christen, a spokesman for the Swiss laboratory, appeared to distance himself slightly from the program’s conclusions.
“We have never said there was polonium poisoning. Yes, we found polonium 210 in more elevated levels than one might have expected, but the clinical description of Chairman Arafat’s symptoms prior to his death is not compatible with polonium poisoning.”
To know that, he said, you would need samples from the body.
In November, a French doctor who teaches at the Percy Military Hospital appeared to confirm this explanation. Speaking for the first time since 2004, Dr Roland Masse said polonium poisoning was not a likely cause of Arafat’s death.
“There is absolutely no way the symptoms described in Yasser Arafat’s medical report match those of poisoning by polonium,” said Dr Masse, who was not the haematologist who treated Arafat and signed his medical report. That doctor is prevented by French law from commenting.
Dr Masse is, however, an expert in radiation illnesses. “When in contact with high levels of polonium, the body suffers from acute radiation which translates into a state of anemia and a severe decrease in white blood cells,” he said. “And yet Arafat did not present any of those symptoms. What did decrease was his platelets, not his white blood cells.”
Another objection to the polonium theory is that this radioactive element has a short half-life. If it was still on Arafat’s clothes eight years after his death, it would have had to have been on his body in huge quantities in 2004, and would have been impossible to miss. If polonium had been present in those quantities, the people around him, including Suha Arafat, would also have been poisoned.
None of this recent information about polonium affects the views of Palestinian investigator, General Tirawi, who says he will continue the investigation no matter what the scientists find. Tirawi is a former intelligence chief, not a medical man, and he is busy collating evidence of all kinds, including witness statements from Palestinians who were in Ramallah and Paris with Arafat, as well as comments by Israeli politicians. “We will catch the killers,” he said.
On the streets of Ramallah the people who supported the exhumation, and those who didn’t, all wanted to know why the Palestinian Authority was only now taking action. Grandmother Laila al Tawil said “Arafat has been dead a long time. It’s too late now, too late in every sense. Whoever poisoned him poisoned him and it’s over. They should let him rest in peace.”
Some argue that the Palestinian Authority is seeking to burnish Arafat’s legacy. He had started to fade from view of late, but now posters and murals of him are once again on display in West Bank towns and refugee camps. But Dr Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, Director of the Palestinian Academic Society for Study of International Affairs disagrees with this theory, because he views the current investigation as a day of reckoning for Fatah.
“You see people here believe Israel did it — and if it wasn’t with polonium it was with something else. There is a deeper problem wrapped up in this for us. Israel could not reach Arafat directly, as he was imprisoned in the Mukata for years prior to his death. If they did poison him, someone inside must have helped them. We have always known this. Now there will be no escaping the issue of the collaborators,” said Dr Abdul-Hadi.
General Tirawi promises that as soon as there is enough evidence, prosecutions will commence. Any Palestinians will be tried under Palestinian law in the West Bank. Other nationals will be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
“We will go all the way on this one. It will be the first legal action we bring once we achieve observer status at the United Nations at the end of this month.”
Irris Makler is the author of Hope Street Jerusalem. She blogs at www.hopestreet.com.au