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Reopening the mystery of Yasser Arafat’s death

The remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed early on Tuesday so that French, Swiss and Russian experts could reexamine clues to the cause of his death. But can they solve one of the Mideast’s greatest mysteries?


More than eight years after Yasser Arafat’s body arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah to a clamorous home crowd of bereft mourners, the remains of the former Palestinian leader were exhumed Tuesday in a bid to solve one of the Middle East’s greatest political mysteries.

Teams of international experts from France, Switzerland and Russia began arriving over the weekend in Ramallah to take samples of Arafat’s bones for further tests.

The exhumation was carried out in secrecy early Tuesday, with Arafat's grave carefully shielded from the public eye and media kept far away, but Palestinian sources confirmed the remains had been removed for testing.

Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, Palestinian officials said Arafat’s remains had been reburied.

Arafat – fondly called Abu Ammar by his supporters – died at the Percy military hospital in a suburb of Paris on November 11, 2004.

French hospital reports attributed his death to a massive brain haemorrhage, but gave no details on what caused a related blood condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation. Batteries of tests conducted during his 17-day stay at Percy hospital were unable to pinpoint the cause of the blood disorder.

The rapid deterioration of Arafat’s health following an Israeli military siege of his destroyed Ramallah headquarters – known as the Muqata – fuelled numerous conspiracy theories, including suspicions that Israel, or even rival Palestinian factions within his own party, had poisoned the 74-year-old Palestinian leader.

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile, survived an attempted poisoning by Israeli agents in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 1997.
Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile, survived an attempted poisoning by Israeli agents in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 1997.

Most Palestinians however believe he was poisoned by Israel. Palestinians point out that in 1997, Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal was the target of an attempted poisoning by Israeli agents in the Jordanian capital of Amman. The plot failed after Meshaal’s bodyguards captured Israeli secret agents fleeing the scene, enabling then Jordanian monarch, King Hussein, to secure an antidote in exchange for the release of the captured Israeli agents.

Reporting from Ramallah Tuesday, France 24’s Gallagher Fenwick said Palestinian reactions to the exhumation ranged from skepticism to frustration. “Skepticism because they believe that whatever the results of the investigation, they doubt it will have any concrete consequences – especially if it is proved that there was foul play involved in the death of Yasser Arafat. One Palestinian told me that he was convinced that Israel was involved in the death of their former leader but Israel never bears any kind of judicial consequences after assassinating Palestinian leaders, ” said Fenwick.

Israel has repeatedly denied responsibility for Arafat’s death.

The decision of the Palestinian leader’s widow, Suha Arafat, to forego an autopsy immediately after his death, coupled with French privacy laws prevented further investigations, fuelling rumours of foul play.

A documentary and a duffle bag reopen a closed case

But that changed earlier this year, when an Al Jazeera investigative report, which aired in July, found evidence that Arafat’s death may have been due to unnatural causes.

During the making of the documentary, Mrs. Arafat provided the Al Jazeera team with a bag of her late husband’s personal effects, which she obtained from the Percy hospital.

The duffle bag included articles the late Palestinian leader had used shortly before his death in the French hospital – such as a toothbrush, a blood-stained hospital bonnet, a knitted cap which contained the deceased’s hair samples, as well as Arafat’s trademark kaffiyeh headdress.

The Al Jazeera team then sent Arafat’s personal effects to the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, where scientists were surprised to detect “an unexplained, elevated amount” of unsupported (artificial) polonium-210 on Arafat’s belongings.

French hospital records show a number of tests were conducted on Arafat during his 17-day hospital stay, but he was not tested for polonium poisoning.

Relatively little was known about polonium poisoning before the 2006 death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. Scientists admit that there are still vast uncovered areas of research since polonium poisoning remains a relatively new and relatively rare occurrence.

The team of experts in Lausanne did not authoritatively conclude Arafat’s death was due to poisoning, but that there were simply surprisingly high levels of unsupported polonium-210. Further tests, the experts concluded, were needed.

Following the conclusions of the Lausanne team, Mrs. Arafat requested blood and urine samples from the French hospital which were taken shortly before her late husband’s death. But she was told that the samples had been destroyed in 2008.

In the absence of other samples, experts interviewed in the documentary concluded that exhumation was the only alternative, but the process had to be done rapidly. Eight years is considered a limit to detect any traces of the deadly radioactive substance, according to the Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics.

Exhumation closed to the public

A Palestinian worker places a plastic tarp around the mausoleum of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
A Palestinian worker places a plastic tarp around the mausoleum of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The findings of the documentary rapidly accelerated the developments on the Arafat case. Following a legal complaint filed by Mrs. Arafat, a French court opened a murder investigation into the Palestinian leader’s death in August.

A French team recently sought to question Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reported the Los Angeles Times, quoting Palestinian officials who requested anonymity.

But the French team’s request was rejected. "We will not allow any action that would infringe on our sovereignty," Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian inquiry team, told the Los Angeles Times in an apparent reference to the French request.

On Tuesday, French experts are working alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia.

At a press conference last week, Tirawi told reporters the experts will take samples from Arafat's bones, which will be examined in their home countries. He did not specify when the results would be announced but said the probe could take months.

Another possibility could be that the teams of experts may not be able to answer the myriad questions surrounding the death of the former Palestinian leader. Polonium-210 is known to rapidly decompose, and experts are divided over whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.

There is no guarantee that Tuesday’s exhumation will solve the mystery of the Palestinian guerrilla-commander-turned peace negotiator’s last days. If that’s the case, Arafat’s death is guaranteed to go down in history as one of the great mysteries in the Arab world.


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