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Arafat exhumation is just a beginning

Whether or not Arafat is viewed as a resistance hero, there must be closure about his death, so this mystery doesn't dog subsequent generations of Palestinian leaders.

Tomorrow, a team of French, Russian and Swiss scientists will unearth the remains of Yasser Arafat, interred in Ramallah since 2004. That project may begin to answer one of the intractable mysteries of the past decade: what (or who) killed the former Palestinian leader?

It is far from assured that this European team will come up with any conclusive cause of death. In August, Al Jazeera news channel reported that the late leader's personal effects were contaminated with polonium 210, the same radioactive isotope that was used in 2006 to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and opponent of the Putin government. A French court has opened a murder case. At the very least, the discovery of relatively high concentrations of polonium on Arafat's toothbrush and clothes was suspicious.

There has been plenty of unsubstantiated speculation about the causes of Arafat's death in Paris, ranging from a stroke to cancer to cirrhosis. Most of this has been rumour mongering. The decision of his widow Suha Arafat to forego an autopsy in 2004, and French privacy laws, have so far prevented an adequate investigation. Mrs Arafat's change of mind after the Al Jazeera report, and the Palestinian Authority's decision to allow the exhumation, could be a start.

It is possible that this latest inquiry will conclude natural causes, which would be closure of a sort. If high levels of polonium contamination are detected, indicating deliberate poisoning, it might simply raise more questions.

There would be no shortage of possible suspects. Many Palestinians consider Israel as the obvious culprit - the hostility of the Second Intifada and decades of unequal sparring would seem to provide clear motive. Polonium 210 is most often associated with nuclear reactors in Israel and Russia. Other theories have speculated that murky rivalries among Palestinian leaders may be to blame.

The uncertainty and suspicion is the most compelling argument to go forward with this investigation. Whether or not Arafat is viewed as a resistance hero, there must be closure about his death, so this mystery doesn't dog subsequent generations of Palestinian leaders.

Regardless of the results of the autopsy, it is highly unlikely that it will provide all of the answers, but they could compel further investigation. Palestinian Authority leaders, with international assistance, need to follow this case to the end.

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