IT was suspected for long 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 details about the nature 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 poison which leads to a comparatively slow but an inevitable and painful death. The Swiss Institute for Radiation Physics has stated that it has found “surprisingly high” levels of polonium-210 on Arafat’s clothing. Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had defected to British Intelligence, was allegedly killed in November 2006, when 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. Dr Ashraf al Kurdi, Arafat’s personal physician for 25 years, had gone on record stating that the Palestinian leader was poisoned. He described Arafat’s death as “stealth assassination”. The nine month investigations into his death has 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 is 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 husband’s death and uncover the truth, so that justice can be done”, her lawyer said in a statement. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas had agreed in early July to the request by Suha Arafat for the exhumation of her husband’s body. Arafat’s body currently rests in a limestone mausoleum in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
President Abbas said that the body could be exhumed provided there is no objection from 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 into the death of Arafat. Some devout Islamists may raise objections to the exhumation but the majority of the Palestinians want to know about the exact reasons that led to the untimely demise of their beloved 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 Arafat’s 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 pin-point the truth as polonium has a tendency to decay over the years. 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 the death of the former Palestinian president.
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 the 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 that had surrounded the area. Arafat had suddenly collapsed in October 2004. He was airlifted to a Paris hospital where he soon slipped into a coma and died on November 11, 2004 at the age of 75.
An Israeli journalist working for the Maariv newspaper group, Uri Dan 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 Arafat’s demise that the Palestinian leader had “no insurance policy”. Dan and Sharon had enjoyed a very close personal and political relationship. During the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led by Gen Sharon, there were orders to eliminate Arafat. Sharon’s close political associate, Ehud Olmert, had openly threatened to eliminate Arafat. Olmert went on to become prime minister after Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke. Sharon lies in irreversible coma while Olmert faces a jail term for corruption. An Israeli Court recently found him guilty of corrupt practices.
Experts point out that Israel had the necessary expertise and the wherewithal to eliminate Arafat, who it considered a stumbling bloc for its expansionist policies in the occupied territory. Israel is known to have made great strides in nuclear and biological warfare capabilities. Israel has the largest bio-warfare 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 which has such a sophisticated nuclear reactor. Arafat’s nephew who many consider his political heir, Nasser al-Qidwa, categorically 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”. 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 Arafat’s final days, including many from the French military hospital where he breathed his last.
At the time Arafat died, very few people knew that polonium could be also used for poisoning. 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 prominence. 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, any way has a long track record of indulging in cloak and dagger targeted killings using original though unscrupulous means. The Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Meshal was nearly killed in 1997 after Mossad (the Israeli secret service) agents sprayed levofentanyl, a toxic agent, into his ear. Another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabouh was killed in aDubai hotel in 2010 by Mossad agents. They first injected him with succinycholine. The chemical helped to immobilise him while the Mossad agents suffocated him to death.
Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and since the eighties an active 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 publicly meet with Arafat 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 though there was no absolute fool proof evidence of Israeli complicity available at this juncture, it is more or less certain that Sharon after getting the tacit approval fromWashington carried out the targeted assassination. By October 2004, the 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 Islamists, to accept it. This would have put an end to the (illegal Israeli) settlement enterprise. That’s why he was poisoned”, concluded Avnery.
The death of Arafat resulted in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) 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 as being a “quisling” leadership that has stood aside while Israelreduced the West Bank into a “Bantustan”, pockmarked by Jewish settlements. Hamas, influenced by Islamists, has filled the political vacuum left behind by the death of Arafat to an extent. But the relentless hostility of the West coupled with the Israeli blockade has reduced the Gaza Strip into an open air prison. Now there are signs that Hamas too is buckling under the sustained pressure and getting ready to strike yet another “historical” compromise with Israel. However, the Hamas leader, Khaled 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 PA to stop the investigations surrounding the death of Arafat. A Palestinian official told the media in Ramallah that Washington and Paris are 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 PA that new investigations into Arafat’s death could put the peace process further off-track. PA officials are now saying that they will decide on exhuming Arafat’s body, only after reviewing the reports form the Swiss lab. The Swiss investigators have said that they can only come to a definitive conclusion after examining the bones of the departed leader.