As the then-Palestinian president was entering his 36th month of solitude and confinement, which began in December 2001 by order of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, he fell violently ill, to the bewilderment of his personal doctors. Rumors about a blood infection or a massive internal hemorrhage spread.
Arafat was attended without success by local medical experts, until it was agreed to airlift the ailing 75-year-old Palestinian leader to France, where he was hospitalized in a military facility outside Paris.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner would pass away a few days later in Bercy Hospital, without an identified cause of death. His death left all Palestinians in mourning, and the missing explanation raised questions that Arafat might have been murdered. Those questions are resurfacing now.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, denied permission to conduct an autopsy. The body was taken back to Ramallah to be buried, together with the truth. It was also a way to stifle any possible political clash, be it with Israel or between rival Palestinian factions.
The status quo was maintained until Mrs. Arafat received a telephone call. She was asked if she would agree to make all of her husband’s medical files available for Swiss experts at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, in order to attempt to ascertain the cause of the death.
The story came to the attention of international media when Al Jazeera aired last summer a documentary by investigative reporter Clayton Swisher, "What Killed Arafat?," that paved the way for a possibly different ending. “About one year ago I obtained all the original medical files that were taken by the Bercy Military Hospital, as well as the files recorded by several Arab doctors who treated him during that month he fell ill to do a cold case investigation and review the files. Upon their recommendation I asked Mrs. Arafat if she had any item, any personal effects of her husband for example, that the lab could use for toxicology purposes,” Swisher said.
Suha Arafat gave Swisher a gym bag with items the Rais, as he was known -- Arabic for "president" -- wore or used during his last days, including a hat, a toothbrush, and some medicines.
“It was not just any hat. It was the [fur] hat that was taken from his head when he died. It contained small bloodstains. There was the urine-stained underwear that he wore with him at the military hospital in France. All of these items tested positive for reactor-made polonium 210,” Swisher recalled.
Polonium is a radioactive isotope, found in nature at extremely low concentrations. It was discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie and named after the famous female physicist’s homeland of Poland.
Beyond a threshold dose, polonium 210 is lethal if ingested by humans. Only two years after Arafat’s death, the world witnessed how a former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, died in agony in a London hospital after eating a polonium-tainted meal served by killers unknown to this day. According to witnesses, the sudden onset and the slow progress of the Palestinian leader’s disease was similar to Litvinenko’s.
“The tests the Swiss performed were on dried biological stains that are eight years old, and polonium only has a half-life of 138.4 days. So the levels that they found in 2012 were of such a value that when they multiplied it back to 2004, it correlated to roughly the same dosage of polonium that would have been used to kill Litvinenko,” Swisher said.
The half-life of a radioactive isotope is the time it takes for the radioactivity to decrease by half. The amount traced by the Institute of Legal Medicine of the University Hospital in Lausanne was sufficient to motivate Suha Arafat to petition a French court to open an investigation for murder, and for the Palestinian National Authority to have her husband’s body exhumed for testing.
The goal is to determine is how much polonium may be in Arafat’s body. “This is needed in order to confirm or disprove the results we got in the test we ran for the film. This is, I guess, the million-dollar question,” said Swisher. The results may take weeks or even months, but may lead to high-profile consequences: If a sufficiently high concentration of polonium 210 is found, another investigation may be opened by Palestinian or Israeli authorities.
“If it appears that a crime was committed, the family could file a complaint and have a police investigation run its course, and if evidence is discovered that a crime had been committed and can be tied to a particular individual as the perpetrator, we would expect prosecution,” said Yuval Shany, dean of the Faculty of Law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a member of the U.N. Human Rights Committee.
“If we are talking about an Israeli suspect, then it would be probably be Israeli police and an Israeli court [to investigate and possibly try the case], since under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians do not have jurisdiction over Israeli citizens in any case,” Shany pointed out.
An international court might not be a viable option. Even with Palestine's newfound status, as of Thursday, as an observer state at the U.N., the International Criminal Court would probably not be involved. “It seems unlikely that the murder of a single individual, however atrocious it may be, would qualify as a crime of the magnitude being dealt with by the court,” said Shany.
Yet in Ramallah, in front of the blue tarpaulin covering Arafat’s tomb during exhumation, nobody in attendance had much doubt about who was behind the death of the former leader. Israel has engaged in many assassinations of Palestinian military and political leaders. In this case, though, the Israeli government has always denied any kind of involvement.
“There is a simple answer. That is none of our business. The Palestinians are welcome to do whatever they want to do. To our understanding, this is really a settling of accounts between Suha Arafat and the Palestinian authorities who have long accused her of stealing their money. The idea that they are going to drag us into being responsible for anything wrong or bad in their lives is pathetic if not pathological,” said Paul Hirschson, a spokesman at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Palestinians themselves may not be heavily invested in the case. With a cash-strapped Palestinian National Authority not paying salaries to civil servants and the Gaza Strip suffering from an economic blockade still waiting to be lifted in accordance with the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas following a weeklong war, Palestinians might well be more concerned with their daily lives rather than with a CSI-style case involving a mysterious, radioactive death.
That said, Yasser Arafat is still a hero to millions of Palestinians who regard him, rather than his successor Mahmoud Abbas, as their sole true leader and much-missed president. And that's why, in a part of the world where history may matter more than elsewhere, it remains important to find out whether a man who was a revolutionary to some and a terrorist for others, and ended up a Nobel Peace prize-winning statesman, died of an illness -- or a murder.