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
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.
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.
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.
-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
-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.