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Answers needed after new clues on Arafat's death

Yasser Arafat was poisoned with a radioactive substance, new evidence suggests. A full investigation could open up a closed chapter in the history of the Palestinian tragedy.

At the age of 75, Yasser Arafat was known across the world as a symbol of the changing face of Palestinian resistance. But the circumstances of his last days in autumn 2004, with the cause of his illness unknown, left a permanent question mark hanging over the Palestinian movement.

There is now the possibility of a resolution. Investigative reporting by Al Jazeeranews channel suggests that Arafat was murdered, and in a bizarre fashion. A report broadcast yesterday detailed how Al Jazeerahad obtained Arafat's last clothing and his medical files from his widow Suha Arafat. High-tech tests performed in Switzerland revealed traces of polonium 210, a potent radioactive substance that is deadly if ingested. Amounts detected were small but were once much greater: this isotope has a half-life of only 138 days, while the samples are more than seven years old.

Polonium is an improbable murder weapon, hard to use and tricky to obtain. It is also very rare, and it is difficult to imagine how Arafat's belongings could have become contaminated under innocent circumstances.

Such contamination inevitably brings to mind another high-profile case: the killing of a former KGB officer, and a critic of the Putin government, Alexander Litvinenko. He died after drinking polonium-laced tea in London in 2006. The British police inquiry pointed to another KGB veteran, Andrey Lugovoy, but Russia refused to extradite him and he is now a sitting member of the Russian parliament.

Almost eight years after Arafat's death, then, polonium 210 is immediately associated with cloak-and-dagger intrigue and political assassination. But in this case, there are now more questions than answers.

Polonium poisoning does follow about the same course that Arafat's month-long illness did. And the files Al Jazeera obtained, secret until now, include reports on the medical tests of Arafat's last month: these say he did not have Aids, any form of cancer or any other ailment consistent with his symptoms.

Before Arafat was airlifted to Paris, he had been hemmed in by Israeli forces at his Ramallah headquarters, apparently beleaguered on every side. There will be no shortage of speculation about who would have wanted him dead, but far better would be to wait for further evidence, and to insist that the investigation proceed.

The Palestinian Authority has joined Arafat's widow in calling for the body to be exhumed. If it can be proved that Arafat was killed by radioactive poisoning, there can only be a handful of possible suspects. There will be differing opinions on Arafat's legacy, but certainly the circumstances of his death must be made clear to all.

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