Swiss experts hand over forensic results to Palestinians after exhuming remains of PLO leader who died in 2004, but findings not publicly revealed
Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, may well have been poisoned with radioactive polonium, Swiss scientists have concluded in findings that may solve a 10-year riddle but torpedo the latest Middle East peace process.
His remains contained unusually high levels of polonium-210, a substance experts say can usually only be obtained from governments, months of forensic tests have shown.
The conclusions are likely to reawaken allegations that the late guerrilla leader – long a totemic symbol of the Palestinian national cause, was murdered, possibly by Israel which considered him a terrorist.
Yasser Arafat and his wife Suha in 1999 (GETTY)
They also threaten to deal a fatal blow to ongoing peace talks that are already tottering under a barrage of mutual recriminations. A 108-page report from the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne said 18 times the normal levels of polonium were found in samples taken from his ribs and pelvis and in soil stained with his decaying organs.
Scientists said they could assert with 83 per cent confidence that Arafat was poisoned with polonium and said their findings “moderately supports” the argument that it caused his death.
The report – following exhaustive tests by Swiss, French and Russian physicians – promises to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of the former Palestinian Authority president who died aged 75 in November 2004 after falling ill in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
It came after the Lancet reported last month that the Swiss scientists had found polonium on Arafat’s clothing after examining 38 samples of his belongings, including underwear, a shapka hat, toothbrush, a hospital cap and sportswear,
Arafat’s widow, Suha, now living in Paris, said the latest report proved that her husband’s death was “a real crime, a political assassination”.
“This has confirmed all our doubts,” she added. “It is scientifically proved that he didn’t die a natural death and we have scientific proof that this man was killed.” She stopped short of identifying possible culprits, saying her husband had many enemies.
David Barclay, a British forensic scientist who studied the report, called it a “smoking gun” and said he too was convinced Arafat had been murdered.
“Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning,” he told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, whose investigation last year into whether the former Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO] leader had been murdered triggered the forensic examinations. “We found the smoking gun that caused his death. What we don’t know is who’s holding the gun at the time.
“The main problem is the timeframe,” he said. “If this was a murder that happened yesterday you’d have witnesses and cell phone records, emails, bank transfers. In a nine-year-old case that type of information will be hard to obtain.”
Scientists exhumed Arafat’s remains from his tomb in Ramallah last November after Al Jazeera’s report triggered a fresh clamour to re-open investigations into his death.
The report also prompted detectives in France to launch a murder investigation.
Scientists handed the result of their findings to Palestinian officials in Geneva on Tuesday.
However, there were signs that the report could trigger disagreements amongst Palestinians. Ghassan Shaka’a, mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus and a PLO executive committee member, said not all the results of tests had been revealed. The various Palestinian committees had decided to postpone their publication for several months “for political reasons”, he told The Telegraph
“We want to know who poisoned him and how they did it and all the details of this crime,” he said. “We want to know who implemented it and planned it. We want to try all those who were involved in it. Arafat was no ordinary president. He was a big symbol for the Palestinian people, who will not remain silent.”
Palestinians have long pointed the finger at Israel for the sudden demise of their iconic leader – pointing out that he had been subject of previous Israeli assassination attempts and death threats.
srael has always denied involvement, attributing Arafat’s death to an unhealthy lifestyle.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, dismissed the report as “more soap opera than science” – adding: “It is the latest episode in the soap in which Suha opposes Arafat’s successors.”
For the last two years of his life, Israeli forces kept Arafat and his closest acolytes under siege in the Mukatta, his presidential headquarters in Ramallah, in an effort to isolate him.
Israel blamed Arafat for orchestrating the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that saw a wave of suicide bombings and denounced him as a “terrorist” who was unfit to be a negotiating partner.
In September 2003, after two suicide bombers had struck in a single day, Ariel Sharon, the then Israeli prime minister declared Arafat “irrelevant” and vowed to “remove” him at a time of Israel’s choosing.
However, some Palestinians have said that even if Israel was behind his death, they could not have succeeded without Palestinian collaborators.
Fahmy Shabaneh, a lawyer and former deputy head of the PA intelligence service, has alleged that senior Palestinian officials were involved. “There is a political leader and a security leader behind the assassination of Yasser Arafat,” he said. “That’s why they don’t want to reveal more details.”
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