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. 

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Comment Sorting
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.

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