Yasser Arafat: France Opens Murder Inquiry

on August 28 2012 4:33 PM
Ceremony Marking Anniversary Of Arafat's Death
A Palestinian holds up a poster depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a ceremony marking the anniversary of his death, in the West Bank city of Hebron. Reuters

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have died of poisoning instead of natural causes, according to his family members. Now, French prosecutors have agreed to look into the case.

"A judicial murder enquiry has been opened, as expected following the complaint from [Sufa Arafat, Yasser's widow]," said an anonymous source to Agence France-Presse in Paris.

Sufa Arafat suspects that her husband died of polonium poisoning. The toxic element is very difficult to procure, and has been used almost exclusively by governmental entities in the past. Some supporters of Arafat have accused the Israeli government of assassinating Arafat, a claim that Israeli officials have denied.

The polonium suspicions first surfaced in July, prompting the Palestinian National Authority to announce that it was considering exhuming Arafat's body from its mausoleum in Ramallah.

France is now involved because Arafat was at a Paris hospital when he died in 2004.

Arafat played a major role in Palestinians' ongoing struggles with Israel. Today, Arafat is generally -- though not universally -- considered a stalwart advocate for Palestinian sovereignty. He was the founder and longtime leader of Fatah, the political party that now heads up the Palestinian government on the West Bank.

Arafat was a complicated figure. Early in his career, he was considered a terrorist by Israel and the West. He led several bloody campaigns against Israel before accepting its right to exist in 1988, after which point he continued to fail to stop Palestinian suicide bomb attacks on Israeli soil.

But after changing his tone in the early 1990s and professing openness to bilateral talks with Israel, Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. He rose to the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority in 1996.

Then, in 2000, a series of U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and Palestine disintegrated. Arafat was censured by the West for refusing to compromise. He was also criticized by many Palestinians for failing to reach a solution.

So when Arafat fell ill in 2004, he had enemies on all sides. He complained of stomach pains on Oct. 20, and was flown to Paris for medical treatment on Oct. 29. He died on November 11.

Arafat was reported to have died of a stroke due to a blood disorder. Blood toxicology studies were conducted, but not a full autopsy. No poisonous metals or drugs were found in Arafat's bloodstream at the time of his death.

But in July of this year, a documentary by Al Jazeera unearthed new findings. Suha Arafat gave the Qatar-based news agency some of her late husband's clothing for examination. A Swiss institute analyzed the articles and told Al Jazeera that they showed high levels of polonium, prompting Arafat's family to call for an exhumation and a thorough autopsy to determine the true cause of the his death.

On Tuesday, Palestinian official Saeb Erakat told AFP that he looked forward to the results of the new murder enquiry in France.

"We hope the French investigation will satisfy our desire for truth, and that there will be a serious investigation to reveal the whole truth, in addition to an international investigation to identify all the parties involved in Arafat's martyrdom," he said.

But Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Israel "does not feel this investigation is of any concern to it despite all the hare-brained allegations made against us."

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