News / Middle East

Was Yasser Arafat Poisoned?

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of the Fatah movement (file photo)
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of the Fatah movement (file photo)
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. 

You May Like

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: JC from: New Zealand
July 24, 2012 12:48 AM
The only question is whether he was poisoned by the CIA or Mossad.

by: ahti from: canada
July 19, 2012 9:24 PM
I saw the Al Jazeera program on the examination of Arafat's clothing in Switzerland. Your article is weird, because it has not included what is public knowledge on Arafat's murder. Is truth now the enemy?

by: asabry from: Libya
July 19, 2012 8:50 PM
Remove his remains and bury at sea, like Asama Bin ladein, Arab propagandas never end....

by: theprophet from: usa
July 18, 2012 4:02 PM
ARAFAT was assasinated no doubt by IDF who repeatedly expressed their intention od going so, but didnot because there was an international understanding against it from TO NAME FEW USA, FRANCE, UK SAUDI ARABIA.... When he refused to surrender he became dispensible and orders went out to take him out.
I was the one in previous blogs and comments who suggested that ARAFAT death was an assasination many years ago. I can prove that. also Abbass is am accomplice number one.......

by: Michael from: Massachusetts
July 17, 2012 4:10 PM
75 year old men don't often come down with disseminated intravascular coagulation and massive diarrhea and die of herniation from a brain hemorrhage. There have been many reports that Arafat was found to have an immune deficiency, and his diarrhea is consistent with infection with the opportunistic organism cryptosporidiosis. This causes both the diarrhea and the gall bladder problems that were noted. It is irresponsible to write an article about a medical issue and have the experts interviewed be political experts, not medical experts.

The illness doesn't fit well with polonium, which would not produce disseminated intravascular coagluation, and polonium would have led to hair loss. The illness fits well with AIDS combined with cryptosporidiosis. Although the chronic problem of impaired executive functioning and tremor date back a decade to Arafat's plane crash in Libya, the profound worsening of his mental functioning in the year before his death are easily explained by AIDS dementia.
In Response

by: Cecily Hilleary from: Washington, DC
July 17, 2012 8:12 PM
Yes, AIDS is a possibility, but it is certainly is not the only immune deficiency disorder that could compromise the health of a 75-year-old man living under similar, unhealthy conditions. Nor is Cryptosporidiosis associated solely with AIDS; it can, in fact, be contracted by drinking contaminated water or through contact with an infected animal. Conditions in Ramallah, where Arafat was confined for so long, were not necessarily ideal nor sanitary. As for DIC, am I correct in my understanding that it can be contracted by sepsis or other infections; cancer; certain diseases of the liver, etc., and could have predicated Cryptosporidiosis? We would certainly invite you to comment more extensively.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs