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

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    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.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.