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The Mystery of Arafat's Death

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Dr. Patrice Mangin holding Arafat's keffiyeh. (Photo credit: Al Jazeera)

We may never know with complete certainty whether the still unexplained health crisis that suddenly did in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to natural or unnatural causes. But the recent discovery of polonium on Arafat's clothing, added to a considerable body of circumstantial evidence, has increased an already widespread suspicion that Israel was involved in his sudden demise.

Last week, Al Jazeera reported findings by pathologists in Switzerland that Arafat may have been poisoned by polonium; they based this observation on their examination of parts of Arafat's clothing provided by his widow, Suha. She has now asked that his body be exhumed and examined.

Polonium is the lethal radioactive substance that was used in the high-profile assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, in London in 2006. John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to kill would probably have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities.

Suha Arafat says that, after her husband died, she stored some of his clothing in her lawyer's office before making them available to the Swiss. Nevertheless, there are sure to be important questions relating to the chain of custody. Doubts on that score could be allayed IF the necessary permissions for a carefully monitored exhumation are granted and IF suspicious traces of polonium are found on Arafat's body, which is interred in a grave in Ramallah on the West Bank.

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A radiological science expert at University College London, Derek Hill, has said that, despite the natural decay of the substance after almost eight years, an autopsy should be able to tell "with pretty high confidence" whether Arafat had polonium in his body when he died.

A credible exhumation/examination undertaking, however, would require the cooperation of Israel (itself a suspect) and of Palestinian National Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, who many believe was himself complicit, at least in covering up what happened to Arafat.

In other words, there are many possible slips between cup and lip -- that is, there is no guarantee that more definitive physical evidence will emerge and even if it does, there is virtually no prospect that it will be undisputed.

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This iffy prognosis takes into account how little is known about polonium poisoning, as well as the entirely predictable challenges by scientists, some of whom can be expected to be serving political agendas. Polonium aside, the upsurge in speculation on the cause of Arafat's death has already injected still more poison into the atmosphere of relations between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The latest news has already fueled unrest in the West Bank and could conceivably lead to more violence. On the other hand, almost eight years have gone by since Arafat's death, and the great majority of Palestinians have long since concluded that Israel was responsible for his demise. Besides, Arafat had been losing popularity among Palestinians even before then.

Just the same, when a major world leader dies under suspicious circumstances, it seems worth trying to discern what facts one can before speculating on what actually happened.

What is Known

-Arafat seemed in good health until he fell suddenly ill on Oct. 12, 2004.

-Doctors in Lausanne, Switzerland, and elsewhere have ruled out a range of rumored causes of death, based on Arafat's original medical file provided by his wife.

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-The director of Lausanne's University Center of Legal Medicine, Patrice Mangin, M.D., a forensic pathologist, has said: "There was not liver cirrhosis, apparently no traces of cancer, no leukemia. Concerning HIV, AIDS -- there was no sign, and the symptomology was not suggesting these things."

-The Swiss pathologists had hoped to study the blood and urine samples taken from Arafat while he was at Percy Military Hospital in France. But when Suha attempted to obtain them, she was told that those samples had been destroyed. Adding to the confusion, a senior French military doctor has told the Associated Press, "Samples taken in the hospital remain in the hospital."

-The suspicions of Arafat's longtime personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al Kurdi, zoomed immediately after Arafat's death, when Abbas blocked an autopsy. In an interview in early 2005, Kudri called Arafat's death "stealth assassination." Kudri examined Arafat on day 16 of his 29-day illness and noted what he believed to be signs of poisoning -- a reddish patch on his face and skin with a metallic yellow coloring, as well as severe weight loss.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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