Home inContext Arafat’s Death: A Mystery Unsolved

Arafat’s Death: A Mystery Unsolved

Kalen Taylor

Over the weekend, the Palestinian Authority (PA) called for a joint international probe to investigate the circumstances surrounding the 2004 death of former PA President Yasser Arafat. Current President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly requested French President Francois Hollande to form the probe committee. Separately, Tunisia called for Arab leaders to meet in order to determine how to deal with the issue.

Interest in the Palestinian leader’s death was given new life after Al Jazeera reported that elevated levels of the radioactive element polonium were found on Arafat’s personal effects by the Swiss-based Institut de Radiophysique, prompting Suha Arafat to demand that her late husband’s body be exhumed to “remove a lot of doubt” over the circumstances of his demise. Abbas complied on Monday, giving his final approval to uncover Arafat’s grave and take bone samples. While elevated levels of polonium in the samples may indicate that Arafat was poisoned, it would not reveal how the former Palestinian leader came in contact with it. The State Department has said it will not respond to the latest rumors about Arafat’s death and Jerusalem has yet to comment.

Yasser Arafat in his trademark keffiyeh. (Photo: AP)

If polonium did indeed kill Arafat, experts acknowledge that few would have access to the substance. Instances of polonium poisoning are so rare that many still cannot agree on its symptoms. For example, it took months just to diagnose Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian journalist killed by polonium poisoning some time after Arafat died. Al Jazeera noted that Arafat exhibited severe diarrhea, weight loss, and vomiting — the same symptoms shown by Litvinenko. Others doubt the possibility of polonium poisoning, pointing out that polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days and that eight years have passed since the leader’s death.

Polonium poisoning is only the latest in a long series of theories surrounding Arafat’s death. Last year, Bassam Abu Sharif, one of Arafat’s closest advisors, claimed the chemical substance thallium killed the former Palestinian leader. Meanwhile, others believe that some of Arafat’s symptoms indicated he had AIDS.

If it is true that Arafat was poisoned, then questions remain regarding who poisoned him. One thing is certain: Yasser Arafat did not lack enemies.