Hamas on Wednesday welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s announcement that it would investigate the death of Yasser Arafat, after new reports suggested the president was murdered.
A Swiss institute which examined clothing provided by Arafat’s widow Suha for a documentary by Qatar-based Al Jazeera television said its radiation protection experts had found “surprisingly” high levels of polonium-210.
The PA said it would approve Suha Arafat’s request to bring her husband’s remains out for autopsy from a limestone mausoleum built next to his headquarters in Ramallah, without giving a date for such a move.
Senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said his movement had frequently stressed the need to investigate Arafat’s death. He suggested Israel was responsible for the mysterious illness that killed the 75-year-old iconic leader in 2004.
“The first beneficiary of the crime was the occupation that sought to punish President Arafat for his position which was considered radical towards the settlement process in the last days of his life. We have always said that searching for the truth of Arafat’s death is a national and Arab duty,” Bardawil said in a statement.
Bardawil said the investigation must reveal the truth to stop a repetition of the crime, and called on Arab countries to cooperate to form a joint legal case against Israel.
Widow says Arafat seen as obstacle to peace
The Swiss institute that found high levels of polonium-210 in Arafat’s belongings said symptoms described in the president’s medical reports were not consistent with the radioactive agent.
“I want the world to know the truth about the assassination of Yasser Arafat,” Suha Arafat, 48, told Al Jazeera, without making any direct accusations, but noting that both Israel and the United States saw him as an obstacle to peace.
Confined by Israel to his headquarters in Ramallah for three years after the second intifada erupted, an ailing Arafat collapsed in October 2004.
Foreign doctors flocked to his bedside from Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan amid public assurances from Arafat’s aides over the next two weeks that he was suffering from no more than the flu.
But looking weak and thin — and telling aides “God willing, I will be back” — he was airlifted to a military hospital in France, where he slipped into a coma and died on Nov. 11, 2004.
At the time, rumors flew that he had died from anything from stomach cancer to poisoning to AIDS. French doctors who treated Arafat in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death. French officials, citing privacy laws, refused to give details of the nature of his illness.
Israel denied involvement in Arafat’s death and the head of its Shin Bet intelligence service at the time, Avi Dichter, said on Wednesday it was for Palestinians to investigate: “The body is in their hands. It is in Ramallah, and really, all the keys are in their hands,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the slow death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. At high doses, polonium-210 causes damage to organs and tissues. Britain tried and failed to extradite from Russia a suspect who was a former Kremlin security officer.
Israeli Army Radio said introducing polonium into food was the only way to kill someone with the poison and asked Dichter, whose agency had overall responsibility for monitoring the Palestinians, whether it would have been possible with Arafat.
“You’re asking me as his cook?” he answered, laughing.
He continued: “No, we were focused on more serious things. Arafat’s food did not interest us. I think it interested those around him, in order, really, to keep his health up, as he was indeed known to be unwell. But the Shin Bet, or the State of Israel, were not involved in Yasser Arafat’s food.”
Pressed on the poisoning scenario, Dichter said: “Yasser Arafat had many enemies, domestically, abroad. But let them investigate … The Palestinians know well how to investigate what goes on in their house. Let them investigate and find out.”
Commenting on the Al Jazeera report, Paddy Regan, professor of nuclear physics at Britain’s University of Surrey, said “there is not enough information in the public domain to be clear about whether polonium-210 was, or indeed could have been, the cause of death”.
Regan said there could be several other explanations, such as naturally occurring radioactivity, for the high readings on Arafat’s clothing. He said all such “natural sources” must be ruled out before concluding polonium-210 was “a murder weapon”.
In 1997, Israeli assassins were caught trying to poison Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal in Jordan. Israel is also suspected in the 2010 death in a Dubai hotel room of a Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who UAE authorities said had been drugged.
Suha Arafat, who lives in Malta and France and whose lavish lifestyle abroad has made her a controversial figure among Palestinians, said determining there had been a plot to kill her husband “will glorify more his legacy” and harden Palestinian resolve in any future negotiations with Israel.
“Arafat wanted to arrive with the Palestinian cause to a Palestinian state, and because of this they got rid of him,” she said, without elaborating.
Israel’s foreign minister in 2004, Silvan Shalom, rejected at the time as “scandalous and false” the idea that his country had a role in Arafat’s death. But Israel had earlier threatened Arafat, blaming him for Palestinian violence.
After losing 15 citizens to suicide bombings in September 2003, Israel’s security cabinet decided to “remove” Arafat, without elaborating publicly on the precise action it planned to take. An Israeli newspaper quoted Dichter as saying at the time that it would be better to kill Arafat than exile him.