People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 29, 2013


Arafat: Death by Polonium


Yohannan Chemarapally



THE results of the tests conducted by a high level Swiss investigation team seem to have conclusively proved that death of Yasser Arafat on November 11, 2004 was due to the result of polonium poisoning. The results released in November found high levels of deadly Polonium-210 in the remains of the late Palestinian leader’s body. Arafat’s body was exhumed earlier in the year at the request of his widow Suha Arafat. High levels of the highly poisonous substance were also found in Arafat’s personal belongings which were tested earlier. “Our results are fully in the same line of the previous results (of the investigations of Arafat’s belongings). They actually reinforce our results”, said Francois Bochud, the director of the Institute of Radiophysics in Lausanne, Switzerland. He said that the death of the revered Palestinian leader must have occurred within a month after he ingested the radioactive poison. The levels of polonium found in Arafat’s ribs, pelvis and the soil surrounding his body were at least 18 times higher than normal, according to the report.


“What we know of the timeline between the ingestion of the radioactive poison and death is that it usually lasts about one month. This is commonly observed in radioactive poisoning”, Bochud told the media. The prestigious Swiss Institute has concluded that its “observations are coherent with a hypothesis of poisoning”. Bochud added that in any case nobody “accidentally or voluntarily absorbs a source of polonium – it is not something that appears in the atmosphere just like that”. However, a Russian forensic report that was quoted by Palestinian investigators claimed that there was insufficient evidence to conclusively support the theory that Arafat died as a result of polonium poisoning. Samples were taken from Arafat’s exhumed body by Swiss, Russian and French investigators. The Russian investigators while not denying that the Palestinian leader had ingested polonium said that there was “not sufficient evidence to support the decision that Plonium-210 caused acute radiation syndrome leading to death”. The Russian investigations also found large amounts of radioactive isotopes in the Palestinian leader’s remains. The Russian report “only moderately supports the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with Polonium-210”. The French pathologists have not revealed their findings so far. Arafat had died in a French military hospital. The French authorities chose not to conduct an autopsy after his death. They have said that there was no request for the procedure either from Arafat’s family or the Palestinian Authority (PA). A French Court has however ordered an enquiry into the suspicious circumstances leading to the death of the Palestinian leader. 


The Palestinian people from the very beginning were suspicious about the way their leader died. Many influential Palestinian leaders had blamed Israel at the time of his death itself. Tawfiq Tirawi, who was the Intelligence Chief of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat and now the head of the Palestinian committee looking into the circumstances of the Palestinian leader’s death, speaking after the Swiss Institute released its report, said that Arafat did not die a natural death. “Our efforts are ongoing – to find out who stands behind the death of Arafat and who has the technical and scientific means for this. We consider Israel the first, fundamental and only suspect in Yasser Arafat’s assassination”. He strongly rebutted rumors that the poisoning of the Palestinian leader could even have been the handiwork of members of the entourage that was holed up with Arafat in his residence in Ramallah. Israeli forces had occupied Ramallah surrounding Arafat’s residence making him a virtual prisoner in the last two and a half years of his life. Israel had blockaded Arafat in his compound with the tacit approval of the United States administration.


Arafat’s widow has once again raised suspicion about a “close circle” which surrounded Arafat in his last years of having a hand in Arafat’s death. “We are revealing a real crime, a political crime”, she told the Reuters news agency in Paris after receiving the results of the Swiss forensic tests on her husbands corpse. She pointed out that Israel had described her husband as “an obstacle to peace” in the period before his demise. She said that polonium may have been administered by someone in “his close circle” because experts on the subject told her that polonium would have been put in his coffee, tea or water. The Israelis may have provided the polonium but somebody close to Arafat had to either make him inhale or consume the substance. Suha Arafat has said that she wants the Palestinian Authority to fully probe the circumstances leading to the death of her husband, affectionately called the “Father of Palestine”. She has vowed to pursue the case along with her daughter Zahwa, in European courts and elsewhere to ensure that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice.


Wasel Abu Yusef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, has called for an international inquiry into the death of Arafat. “The results prove that Arafat was poisoned by polonium, and this substance is owned by states, not people, meaning that the crime was committed by a state”, he said. Another PLO executive committee member, Qais Abd el Karim, called for an “independent and internationally credible investigation into this crime”. He held Israel responsible for this “crime of the century”. Karim said that only Israel had the rationale to commit the crime and added that it will be difficult for the PA to continue with the ongoing peace talks as the majority of Palestinians will find it “improper”. The PA had until recently refused demands for an autopsy on the body of Arafat. It was only the sheer persistence of Suha Arafat and the demand of French Court that led to exhumation of the body.


Nasser Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew, told the Guardian newspaper that the PA was not keen that the Palestinian people know the truth about “the great crime – the killing of their beloved leader” as it would have meant the end of the peace process. The unraveling of the “great crime” started with the efforts of an American investigative journalist, Clayton Swisher, who had become close to Arafat in his last years. Swisher, who also had a stint as an American Intelligence agent had raised serious concerns about the circumstances leading to Arafat’s death. The 75 year old Palestinian leader was in good health, when he suddenly took ill after having lunch. Swisher convinced the Al Jazeera network to do an investigative story on Arafat’s death. The documentary that the channel released in 2012 titled – “What killed Arafat” revealed that some of his personal belongings, including his toothbrush and “kaffiyeh” (his trademark head scarf) had traces of polonium. This led to the rising demand, led by Suha Arafat, that his body be exhumed.


The Lancet, one of the leading medical journals, in an article published on October 12, also supported the hypothesis that Arafat was a victim of polonium poisoning. A British scientist, Prof. Paddy Regan, an expert on radiation detection, told the BBC that the

Swiss scientists had made a “pretty strong statement” by saying that Arafat was poisoned with polonium. Another British forensic scientist, David Barclay, told the Al Jazeera network, that there was “conclusive evidence” that the level of polonium in Arafat’s body was very high.  The report, he said, represented a “smoking gun”. He said that it is now the duty of the international community to find out “who was holding the gun at the time”. Only around 100 grams of polonium are produced every year. Only countries with nuclear reactors are able to produce them and Israel is the sole nuclear power in the region. Israel has access to polonium from its Dimona nuclear reactor.


Israel has since its inception used assassination as a tool of foreign policy. Many top Palestinian leaders had been successfully targeted before Arafat. The leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal was lucky to escape an assassination attempt literally by the skin of his teeth in 1996. Ariel Sharon, who was prime minister of Israel at the time of Arafat’s death, told an American journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg working for Bloomberg news service that in all 13 attempts were made on Arafat’s life by the Israeli security services.  “All the governments in many years, Labour, Likud, all of them, made an effort – and I want to use a subtle term for the American reader – to remove him from our society. We never succeeded”.  Sharon, had threatened to eliminate Arafat, just weeks before his death, saying that the Palestinian leader would meet the same fate that befell Hamas leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al Rantissi, both killed by Israeli security forces. Shimon Peres, currently Israel’s president, admitted to the New York Times in an interview in January that he had to use his considerable influence in the security establishment of the country to ensure that Arafat remained unharmed in the days prior to the signing of the Oslo agreement. He implied that Arafat was allowed to remain alive as Israel needed a negotiating partner they could do business with. He went on to add that Arafat should not have been assassinated as without him “the current situation is more complicated”


In a cabinet meeting in 2003, the Israeli government openly issued a warning that it would remove “the obstacle” Arafat at a time of its own choosing. Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister at the time, further clarified that killing Arafat was “one of the options”. The then Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, was caught on tape telling Sharon in January 2002 that there was an urgent need of getting rid of Arafat. Tel Aviv and Washington viewed Arafat as a stumbling block to the so called road map for peace they had charted out for the Palestinians. Israeli settlement activity was proceeding at a feverish pace meanwhile. Arafat’s charisma coupled with his refusal to cater to the ever increasing demands for more concessions from the Israelis, had kept the various Palestinian forces united. His death led to a damaging split within the Palestinian movement to the detriment of the dream for statehood that Arafat had cherished for long.


The Israeli government has been vehemently denying all accusations that it has had a hand in the poisoning of Arafat. The Israeli foreign ministry spokesman claimed that Swiss investigation reports were “inconclusive at best” and was “more soap opera than science”. Silvan Shalom, who was the Israeli foreign minister at the time of Arafat’s demise, claimed that the security forces were given strict instruction that the Palestinian leader should not be physically harmed.  Not surprisingly, not many people are willing to vouch for Israel’s innocence, given its track record.