RAMALLAH // Investigators exhumed remains of Yasser Arafat yesterday as part of an inquiry into the cause of the Palestinian leader’s mysterious death eight years ago.
French, Swiss, Russian and Palestinian examiners attended the process of taking samples from the body, which lies interred in a creme-coloured mausoleum in the presidential compound of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Muqata, located in Ramallah. The city serves as the Palestinians’ administrative capital of the West Bank.
Palestinians view Arafat as the embodiment of their struggle against Israel and evidence of foul play in his rapid demise at a Paris military hospital in 2004 could stir unrest. Many here blame Israel for poisoning the late leader, although no formal investigation was ever completed.
His widow, Suha Arafat, initially forbade a post-mortem until authorising one as part of a French-led inquiry that she requested in September.
That was prompted by a July report by the Al Jazeera network on an investigation – in cooperation with Mrs Arafat and Swiss scientists – that uncovered evidence suggesting her husband may have been poisoned by a radioactive substance, polonium-2010, used in 2006 to kill the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
“It’s a difficult decision, but it’s the right decision,” Saeb Erekat, a senior official in the Fatah faction that runs the PA, said yesterday of the exhumation.
“We need to know – all Palestinians need to know – the truth because we cannot continue this sort of speculation where, every few years, someone comes along with a story based on just speculation,” he said.
Because of religious taboos of unearthing the dead and possibly because of fears of provoking protests, the investigative team appeared to take extra precautions during the process that began in the early hours of yesterday. Authorities blocked entrances to the Muqata compound after having already obstructed views of Arafat’s limestone tomb with blue tarpaulins weeks before.
There was confusion about how Arafat’s remains were extracted. Some reports said that after taking remains to a nearby mosque, Palestinian physicians extracted samples.
But Hani Abdeen, the PA health minister, said they were extracted without taking them to another location.
Either way, samples were given to European investigators for examination in their respective countries.
“Samples will be taken according to a very strict protocol and these samples will be analysed,” said Darcy Christen, spokesman for the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, which Al Jazeera had contacted to test Arafat’s belongings as part of the television network’s investigation into his death.
“To do these analyses, to check, crosscheck and double crosscheck, it will take several months and I don’t think we’ll have anything tangible available before March or April next year,” he said
Many Palestinians credit Arafat for almost single-handedly giving them hope in the years after Israel’s creation in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of them were forced or fled from their homes and became refugees.
His fight against Israel put the Palestinians’ plight on the map, and his eventual, if fitful, decision to solve his people’s conflict through peaceful negotiations with Israel gave Palestinians hope for an independent state of their own.
Since his death at age 75, little more than speculation and rumours involving everything from causes ranging from Aids to poisoning have shrouded any certainty behind Arafat’s demise.
That has fuelled Palestinian suspicions of Israel’s hand in the death, as well as Palestinian conspirators, possibly someone who had access to the late leader – the PA’s first democratically elected president – during his last two years. He and hundreds of Palestinians spent that time besieged by the Israeli military in the Muqata compound because of the violence of the second intifada, or uprising.
Many Israelis blame Arafat for encouraging if not directing that violence.
PA investigators have said two other Palestinians died shortly after Arafat of mysterious circumstances. Moreover, Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat’s death, said in an interview published last month that Israel had handled food and water supplies that were distributed to the late leader and fellow Palestinians during the siege.
Israeli officials have vehemently denied killing Arafat, although in 2003 the then-deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, suggested this as an option during a radio interview.
“For sure, he was poisoned but the question we want to know is, who got the poison to him,” said Terry Hussein, 43, co-owner of the Al Ward supermarket, located next to the Muqata. “Palestinians could have helped with this.”
Palestinian officials also expressed annoyance with the French investigative team, which also has been interviewing Palestinians who were in contact with Arafat during his last days. One official said Russian investigators were requested to participate in the investigation as a way to keep an eye on the French.
“The impression I get of the French: they did not respect Palestinian sovereignty. They have tried to impose things,” said the official.
He and other officials have for months been critical of the French-led investigation and Mrs Arafat, whom they said surprised the PA by co-operating with the Al Jazeera investigation last summer.
Mrs Arafat, conversely, has expressed suspicion about her husband’s former colleagues.
However, Saleh Afana, 52, an employee at the Palestine Monetary Authority, said it was time Palestinians put away their differences over Arafat and allow investigators to do their work.
“Many of us think it was Israeli poisoning, but we will never know the truth unless there is a proper investigation,” he said in downtown Ramallah yesterday.
* With additional reporting from Reuters