x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

With findings by Swiss scientists that the late Palestinian leader's body contained levels of radioactive polonium '20 times larger' than expected, speculation will now turn from whether Arafat died an unnatural death to who was responsible for poisoning him. Analysis by Hugh Naylor

A Gaza City mural of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who Swiss scientists concluded probably died from polonium poisoning. Mohammed Abed / AFP
A Gaza City mural of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who Swiss scientists concluded probably died from polonium poisoning. Mohammed Abed / AFP

RAMALLAH // Who killed Yasser Arafat?

With the finding by Swiss scientists that bone and tissue samples taken from the late Palestinian leader’s body contained levels of radioactive polonium “20 times larger” than expected, speculation will now turn quickly from whether Arafat died an unnatural death to who was responsible for poisoning him.

It is not the first time that it has been suggested that Arafat’s demise came about from foul play. During a television interview in November 2004 as her husband lay dying at a military hospital in Paris, his wife Suha accused his aides of plotting his demise.

Yet the disclosures on Wednesday by researchers at the Vaudois University Hospital Centre in Lausanne have revived and strengthened an allegation that many had dismissed as the diatribe of a grieving widow or as conspiracy-mongering by those who refused to accept the death of a larger-than-life figure they had thought indestructible.

The claim that Arafat was killed gained further credence yesterday, when the director of the hospital centre said that Arafat’s ingestion of polonium was probably the result of deliberate poisoning.

“You don’t accidentally or voluntarily absorb a source of polonium — it’s not something that appears in the environment like that,” Patrice Mangin said.

Besides the Swiss team, Russian and French scientists were also commissioned by the Al Jazeera television network to examine Arafat’s remains, along with the clothes he wore and a travel bag he carried with him to Paris during what turned out to be the waning days of his life. Their findings may yet muddy, even contradict, those of the Swiss investigators.

Still, the Swiss report is for some unassailable proof that Arafat was murdered.

Leading the list of suspects is, not surprisingly, Israel, which had laid siege to the presidential compound in Ramallah in the two years leading up to Arafat’s death. In particular, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was widely reported to be obsessed with the Palestinian leader and mused about removing him from power.

At the same time, many Palestinians here in the West Bank believe Arafat’s political rivals, possibly in coordination with Israel, also plotted to kill him.

Israeli officials vehemently deny these accusations, arguing that Arafat was 75 and had been unhealthy for months, even years, leading up to this death.

On Wednesday, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman responded to the fresh speculation, calling the Swiss investigation “more soap opera than science”. Israel’s protestations of innocence are supported by lingering questions about the quality of the medical care Arafat received after he fell ill at his compound in Ramallah before dying a month later on November 11, 2004. It took physicians over two weeks after he became sick to prescribe antibiotics for him, according to medical records later leaked to reporters.

French doctors attributed his death to a stroke.

Doubts about the cause of death may have been put mostly to rest had Suha Arafat allowed an autopsy on Arafat’s remains. But she refused, only to agree last year, under the prodding of Al Jazeera, to allow the examination of her husband’s medical records and tests on his belongings.

The nearly decade-long delay in appraising analysing Arafat’s remains for evidence of foul play may always be cited by those who challenge the conclusions of Swiss researchers. But with the declarations out of Lausanne this week, those challenges may sound hollow.

On Wednesday, Suha Arafat did not directly accuse Israel — or anyone, for that matter — of killing her husband.

But she reacted to the Swiss report as if it were conclusive proof that he had been murdered.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, she called it “a shocking, shocking crime to get rid of a great leader”.

Hers is no longer the verdict of a few.

hnaylor@thenational.ae