Investigating the strange death of Yasser Arafat

Investigating the strange death of Yasser Arafat
4 min read
17 November, 2014
Swiss investigations into the former leader's death have found traces of radioactive polonium on his clothes.
The former PLO leader died ten years ago [Getty]

Ten years and a week ago, on 11 November 2004, Yasser Arafat died in a hospital in Paris.

For many Palestinian leaders and members of the Arab public, the theory that he was poisoned by Israel is indisputable. It was only after years of silence that a Swiss investigation confirmed his clothing contained abnormal levels of polonium. French and Russian experts, however, disagree.

Who benefits [Fr] from the mystery shrouding the death of the man who led the Palestine Liberation Organisation for 35 years?

In a meticulous investigation published a decade after his death, French journalist Emmanuel Faux concluded Arafat's sudden death in Paris was: “induced, orchestrated and organised”.

Faux's book, published in French, L’affaire Arafat, l’étrange mort du leader palestinien ["The Arafat affair, the strange death of the Palestinian leader"] does not conclude the former leader was poisoned, due to a lack of evidence.

Neither does it confirm the identity of those who may have ordered and executed such an action. Ten years later, the circumstances of Arafat's death remain the subject of a battle between experts, often complicated by misinformation. Palestinian and French investigations have yet to be completed, although Faux considers the evidence strong enough to claim that "induced death is the most likely hypothesis".

According to Palestinian leaders and Arab public opinion there is no question Arafat was poisoned. Despite this it took seven years, and the broadcasting of two documentaries on Al-Jazeera English in 2012 and 2013, before the affair was re-opened.

The risk of a new uprising

Why the delay? First we should question why the different parties involved - especially Palestinian leaders - would have wanted to bury the subject.

     Proof of poisoning would risk fuelling another uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The answer seems clear. Proof of poisoning would risk fuelling another uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories. This would create incalculable risks for the Arab world, and deal a fatal blow to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Why would Israel have wanted to kill Arafat when he was already a prisoner in his headquarters, and regularly referred to as "irrelevant" by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?

Arafat was still a danger because of everything he symbolised. While a significant number of Palestinians criticised him for leading them into a fool's game with the Oslo Accords [Fr], he was a living symbol uniting the Palestinian people and political organisations.

Attempts to nip the theory of induced intoxication in the bud seemed akin to a badly written television series. The Palestinians did not wait for their leader to die before refuting claims he was assassinated. 

"Doctors have completely ruled out that he was poisoned, and therefore we can do the same," announced Chief Palestinian Negotiator Nabil Shaath - two days before Arafat died. 

However, those close to Arafat - apparently convinced he had been assassinated - did not request an autopsy, and a standard clinical report carried out at the time could not explain why his health had declined so rapidly.

Seven-year silence

Breaking what Faux calls the "seven-year silence", everything changed in 2012 when Al-Jazeera English broadcast a programme entitled: What Killed Arafat? It featured his wife Suha Arafat, and a poison new to the secret market of state murders - radioactive polonium 210.

The documentary revealed that a Swiss laboratory had detected abnormal quantities of polonium on Arafat's clothing, and that at Suha Arafat's request, her deceased husband's body was exhumed, and identical samples were obtained for testing by French and Russian delegations.

     The Swiss... publicly claim their results 'reasonably support the hypothesis of poisoning'.

Politics of the laboratory

The "Arafat Affair" is far from over, with continued political wrangling over the results of analyses published at the end of 2013. French and Russian examinations of the same samples have ruled out poisoning, although their full reports have not yet been published. The Swiss, on the other hand, publicly claim their results "reasonably support the hypothesis of poisoning".

The head of the team told Faux that the levels of polonium detected "inevitably imply the intervention of a third party".

To complete his investigation the author gave the dossier to four well-known toxicologists, who all rejected the idea that Arafat had died from fatigue or old age.

Ten years after his death, the leader's demise still encourages internal Palestinian conflict, at least as much as conflict with Israel. Faux questions why Arafat's wife remained silent for seven years, and dedicates a chapter to Mahmoud Abbas' thinly veiled accusations against Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Palestinian security forces, who is suspected of having a role in Arafat's death.

The poison of suspicion remains very much alive.

This article was original published in French by Orient XXI. This is an edited translation.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.