Just as when he was alive, his death is sending renewed reverberations among the Palestinians, Israelis and the world. Almost everyone — except the Israelis — have been involved in unravelling the mysterious death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on that gloomy 11th day of November in 2004.
For odd reasons, when he died, and despite the fact his demise was full of suspicion, everybody wanted to get the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible. Arafat was seen as an old man who probably died of fatigue and old age and what everyone was looking for was a new era in Palestinian-Israeli politics. Nobody even bothered to call for a biopsy and for no logical reason, the French military hospital were Arafat died, destroyed many of the tests soon after.
Yet many, including Arafat’s wife Suha, continued to believe the Palestine Liberation Organisaton (PLO) chairman and the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was poisoned and it was this that killed him. Nine years later, her suspicions were confirmed. Last week’s report by a Swiss team from the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne brought her as near to the truth as she can possibly get. Its scientists said they had 83 per cent proof that Arafat was lethally poisoned by polonium-210 — a deadly substance that is a product of uranium and made in nuclear reactors.
After re-examination of his ribs and pelvis, they found the level of polonium 18 times higher than the normal levels and it was this that “moderately supports”, as the scientists termed, the belief he was killed with such a highly dangerous substance.
The journey to this final conclusion had been long and arduous. It first started with Al Jazeera approaching Suha in 2011 to do a documentary on the death of her late husband. At the time, she handed the television station all his final possessions in a duffel bag, which they passed on to the Swiss Centre where, after examination of the various items Arafat wore, found they were infected with polonium-210. This increased suspicion, but the scientists needed more proof, which was gained when his wife was persuaded to grant permission to exhume his body, which was laid to rest in a mausoleum outside the PNA headquarters in Ramallah. She got permission from the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and in November 2012, his body was exhumed and 60 samples were taken.
At the time, after the Al Jazeera documentary aired on July 3, 2012, France decided to open a criminal investigation into his death in August 2012, persuading Abbas to exhume the body of the late president. Three teams — French, Swiss and Russian — took tissues from the body to analyse in their laboratories.
It was the results of the Lausanne team that created the shock, reverberations and indeed denunciations mainly from Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, who branded the report as “ ... more soap opera than science”. As expected, the Israelis will say so about the report — that was cautious in its wording — from a reputable institute, which is regarded highly at the international level. It does not blame anyone, but merely says that the death of Arafat — who had taken ill after dinner on October 12, 2004, went into a coma on November 3 and never recovered — was probably the result of polonium poisoning, ingested into his system.
Whether one likes it or not, it was Israel that may have finally done the unthinkable and slipped the deadly silver powder, seen as “perfect poison” that is hard to detect. The Ariel Sharon government, which was then in power, had put Arafat under siege for two and a half years until his illness in October 2004. He was not allowed to move, was kept confined in his quarters with Israeli bulldozers chipping away at his Muqata residence.
It was certainly not true what some Israeli officials were saying about Arafat becoming “irrelevant” — a view emphasised by Dov Weissglass, a top Sharon aide, who pointed out that “Arafat’s control over Palestinian life was minimal ...” and that Israel had no interest in harming him. This actually contradicts what Sharon said at the time — the commitment he had made to the then American president, George W. Bush, to not kill Arafat. Sharon said: “I released myself from the commitment ...”, and added that he should have killed Arafat back in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon.
Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein, who wrote a book on the Palestinian leader, says Sharon and his inner circle were obsessed with how to get rid of Arafat and openly talked about expelling him, killing him or bombing his headquarters. Such voices came from leading Likud figures like Ehud Olmert, who was vice-premier and minister of communication, as well as defence minister Shaul Mofaz. They made it clear they would get rid of Arafat at the right time.
It is really quite baffling to hear of such talk at cabinet level. Looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, this was part of the logical developments leading up to Arafat’s death. It was part of a grand design by Israel and its intelligence agencies, which had been picking up and executing high-profile Palestinian leaders since the early 1970s.
Further, Israeli intelligence had no qualms about going into different Arab countries like Lebanon, Jordan, the UAE or even Italy and other European countries to “liquidate” Palestinians — as Sharon termed it — or in faking other countries’ passports for their own murderous aims.
If you put all these things together, Israel emerges as the prime suspect and the culprit in the murder of Arafat. This is precisely because Israel had the required sophisticated technology — with no compunction in using it, as when it tried to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Mesha’al in Jordan in broad daylight in 1997, by injecting a lethal poison in his ears. If it was not for the intervention of the late King Hussain — who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanded the antidote for the poison — Mesha’al would have been dead.
And so history repeats itself. Israel has an impressive record of assassinations and no doubt its politicians and prime ministers will continue to use this form of political murder in the way they see fit to guard what they perceive as a threat to Israel’s existence, while feeling free to ride roughshod on Palestinians whom they occupy.
Regardless of how one sees this, the latest findings of the Swiss report show a way forward to unravel the mystery behind Arafat’s death. Now that such a fact has been established, the next thing is to find out who are the actual killers. What everyone is waiting for is the current French investigation and its report, that is expected to corroborate what the Swiss have concluded, and enforce the view that the Palestinian leader was indeed poisoned and throw light on just who poisoned him. This should be a political bombshell in its own right.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.