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July 17, 2012

Was Yasser Arafat Poisoned?

by Cecily Hilleary

Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004 of a sudden illness, which led to a fury of conspiracy theories that have never died down.  The rumors surrounding his death were revitalized recently after a the Lucerne-based Swiss Institute of Radiophysics found traces of the deadly radioactive agent polonium  on Arafat’s clothing and personal effects.  So what has prompted this investigation into Arafat’s death - and could an autopsy of his remains finally put a rest to this enduring mystery?

A perfect little poison

Polonium is one of the world’s rarest elements and what Dr. Peter Cummings, a forensic pathologist and staff medical examiner for the U.S. State of Massachusetts calls “the perfect little poison.”

“It’s extremely rare,” said Cummings.  “You have to commercially produce it in a controlled type of environment, like a nuclear reactor.  Most of it is produced in Russia and then brought to the United States.”  

Polonium has been used as a poison before, most notably in the case of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea infused with the poison.

Cummings, who has studied the effects of gamma radiation on the human body, explains why polonium is unique from other forms of radiation. “As an alpha particle, meaning when it decays, it gives off two neutrons and two protons, it has high energy, but it also has this really big mass, so it can’t really penetrate anything," he said.

That, he explains, makes it safe and easy to transport.  “You can carry it around in a vial of water or in an envelope, and it won’t penetrate your skin," he said.  "It’s perfectly safe to carry around, and you can’t get detected in any airport.”

Past its due date?

If, for the sake of discussion, Arafat were poisoned eight years ago, what are the chances that any traces of polonium would remain in his body after all these years? After all, polonium has a half-life of only 138 days, and when radiation combines in a biological system such as the human body, according to Cummings, the half-life can drop to as few as 40 days.

That doesn't mean, however, that polonium disappears altogether. “It can take decades for this stuff to completely vanish,” said Cummings. Moreover, polonium leaves footprints.  “When polonium breaks down, it forms byproducts - typically, lead,” he said.  “So you’re not necessarily testing specifically for polonium - you’re looking for something else.” 

Cummings explains that it doesn’t naturally occur to doctors to test for polonium - first, because it is rare, and second, because most medical facilities are not equipped to test for it.  “Most of the equipment that hospitals have look for gamma radiation, which is an entirely different type of radiation.  So you have to specifically go looking for it,” said Cummings.

May have died natural death

Some observers, like Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, doubt there is any mystery to Arafat's death at all. 

“I look at the situation and I see a 75-year-old man who had led a very difficult life, and who was not well,” said Ibish. He points out that Arafat had a known blood disorder and jaundice.  Ibish also points out Arafat never fully regained health after surviving a 1992 plane crash in the Libyan Desert. "They’re going to have to present me with a good reason to think this wasn’t a natural death," he said.

This is what happens to people.  They grow old, the fall ill and then they die. 
At the time he fell ill, French doctors initially blamed acute gastroenteritis, and in their final report, they concluded the cause of death was a massive stroke.

Looking for leadership

Why, after so many years, do rumors surrounding Arafat’s death persist?  Khaled Elgindy, visiting fellow at the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy, served with the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit and was in Ramallah at the time of Arafat’s death.  He admits that Arafat’s decline was sudden and that it was viewed with suspicion at the time. 

“If you zoom out a little bit,” said Elgindy, “this is precisely the kind of thing that fills the void when there is no diplomatic process happening and no credible political movement happening.”

But Elgindy believes there is more to it than that. “I think that Palestinians are so enthralled with this story,” says Elgindy, “is indicative of the fact that their current leadership is so underwhelming, and so there is a bit of romanticization of Yasser Arafat as a leader.  To know or believe that he was poisoned would only add to this kind of heroic image of their former leader.” 

Elgindy adds, with some irony, "Frankly, it’s better to see this kind of thing happening than a resurgence in the violence."

Ibish cautions that the mystery may never be solved.  “I think everyone should brace themselves for the idea that we may never know,” he said.

Arafat’s widow, who refused an autopsy of her husband eight years ago, will shortly file a legal complaint in France, where her husband died. Her lawyer Marc Bonnant told a French newspaper this past weekend that Suha Arafat will press charges "against persons unknown for poisoning." 

Despite reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has given the go-ahead for an autopsy, Palestinian Justice Minister Ali Mohanna now says Nasser al-Qidwa wants to examine newly-released medical reports before making any decision. 

Earlier, China’s Xinhua news reported that the U.S. had urged the Palestinians not to pursue any further investigation, for fear it could derail any chances for peace in the Middle East.