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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 April 2018

Palestinians to exhume 'poisoned' Arafat

Former leader's body will be examined after nine-month investigation by Swiss institute shows he could have been assassinated.

Palestinians with a mural depicting their late leader Yasser Arafat are reflected in a shop window in Gaza City. New suspicions that Arafat was murdered have prompted calls for a medical examination of his remains.
Palestinians with a mural depicting their late leader Yasser Arafat are reflected in a shop window in Gaza City. New suspicions that Arafat was murdered have prompted calls for a medical examination of his remains.

RAMALLAH // The Palestinian Authority agreed yesterday to exhume the body of Yasser Arafat after allegations he may have been poisoned with the radioactive element polonium-210 in 2004.

President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinian authorities would be prepared to order an investigation into the "real causes" of the Palestinian leader's death, said a statement issued by his office.

There are "no religious or political reasons that preclude research on this issue", the statement added.

Scientists at the Switzerland-based Institute de Radiophysique found unusually high traces of polonium-210 on belongings Arafat had used in his last days in a French military hospital in the outskirts of Paris, according to a report by the news organisation, Al Jazeera.

His possessions were examined as part of a nine-month investigation by the institute into the death.

Body fluid on Arafat's underwear contained almost two dozen times the concentration needed to kill a person, according to the Al Jazeera report.

Institute de Radiophysique's director, Francois Bochud, confirmed during the report that researchers had "measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids".

Arafat's widow, Suha, called on authorities to perform a post-mortem following the laboratory test results. She had authorised Al Jazeera to deliver her late husband's belongings to the Swiss scientists for examination, although it is unclear why.

She had until then refused a post-mortem, a move which frustrated Palestinian officials and fuelled rumours about the causes of Arafat's death, ranging from food-poisoning to Aids.

She refused to allow Arafat's advisers to visit him before his death because they planned to "bury Abu Ammar alive", she said, using his nom de guerre to accuse them of conspiring to replace him.

Neither French nor Palestinian authorities conducted official investigations into the cause of death and Arafat's French physicians, citing privacy laws, refused to disclose the details of his conditions.

Subsequent examinations of his medical records have since ruled food poisoning and Aids as unlikely causes. They also revealed physicians did not prescribe Arafat antibiotics until 15 days after he fell ill, and two days before he was transferred to the Paris-based Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart for emergency treatment.

Mr Bochud reiterated a need for caution yesterday because the lab results "are clearly not a proof of any poisoning".

Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive chemical used in 2006 to kill Alexader Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who later became a prominent Russian dissident, in London.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and member of the Fatah political faction that controls the West Bank, yesterday said the poisoning revelations were grounds for creating an international tribunal similar to that opened to investigate the 2005 killing of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

"All I say is that, in our hearts, we all know that Arafat was killed, but I can't prove evidence from my heart, which is why I'm calling for an international tribunal to fully examine what happened," he said.

Many Palestinians believe undercover Mossad agents had poisoned Arafat because of his alleged role in orchestrating suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis during the second intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000.

Israel's military had besieged Arafat and held him and his staff practically hostage for the three years up until his death at the presidential compound in Ramallah.

Israeli media reports at the time showed his assassination had been broached by Israel's then prime minister, Ariel Sharon. But he reportedly opted neither to kill nor expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories and instead chose to confine him to the presidential compound.

Arafat was not without internal rivals, either, as his closest advisers were both widely regarded to fear the ageing leader and harbour aspirations to take his position.

Last year, Mohammed Dahlan, formerly the head of Fatah's security apparatus in the Gaza Strip who recently fell out of favour with the faction, was accused by Fatah of poisoning Arafat. No evidence was produced publicly to support this claim, however.

Dov Weisglass, formerly Mr Sharon's chief of staff, dismissed the Al Jazeera report during a radio interview, saying the former prime minister opposed killing Arafat because "he didn't think his physical extermination would help" Israel's objectives during the second intifada.

Yigal Palmor, Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, said "the circumstances of Arafat's death are not a mystery" and that he "was treated in France, in a French hospital by French doctors and they have all the medical information".

But many Palestinians believe Arafat's death needs to be explained.

"We all knew it was poisoning," said Terry Atta, a 42-year-old Palestinian and resident of Ramallah. The owner of a small grocery believes one of the many diplomats or visitors at his palace in the months before his death carried it out. The Al Jazeera report merely confirmed what he already knew, he said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from The Associated Press