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Investigators prepare to exhume Arafat's body

Scientists arrive in West Bank to study late Palestinian leader's remains for traces of radioactive polonium.
Last Modified: 25 Nov 2012 14:48

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Scientists and legal experts from Switzerland, France and Russia have begun to arrive in the West Bank in order to exhume the body of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The team will open Arafat's grave on Tuesday in order to test his body for radioactive polonium, according to Tawfiq al-Tirawi, the head of the Palestinian investigation committee.

A nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera found elevated levels of the substance in Arafat’s final personal effects. The findings, which were broadcast in July, suggest that there was also a high level of polonium in Arafat’s body when he died, raising fresh questions about what killed the longtime Palestinian leader.

The cause of Arafat’s death has long remained a mystery. Some reports speculated that he died from AIDS, cirrhosis of the liver, or other diseases, but medical experts who studied his final medical records told Al Jazeera that he was in good health until he suddenly fell ill in October of 2004.

Many Palestinians have long believed that Arafat was poisoned by Israel, a charge Tirawi repeated during a press conference here on Saturday.

“We have evidence which suggests [Arafat] was poisoned by Israelis,” he said. “I consider this a painful necessity. It is necessary to find the truth in the death of President Yasser Arafat."

The Israeli government has denied any involvement in his death, and refused to comment on Al Jazeera’s findings.

'Unsupported' polonium

Arafat died in a French military hospital in 2004. He was buried in a concrete tomb at the muqataa, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

The tomb will be unsealed on Tuesday, and investigators from each of the three countries will remove samples, which they will analyse independently, Tirawi said.

Scientists will also study a small amount of soil from Jerusalem that was buried inside the tomb. Arafat’s body will be reinterred later the same day in a military ceremony.

Al Jazeera’s investigation studied the items Arafat had with him when he died: his comb, his toothbrush, even his iconic kaffiyeh, all of which were variously stained with his blood, sweat, saliva and urine. The items were provided by Arafat’s widow, Suha.

His belongings were analysed by the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, which discovered high levels of polonium-210. Further tests found that most of the polonium was “unsupported,” which means that it did not come from natural sources.

It is a highly radioactive element used, among other things, to power spacecraft. Marie Curie discovered it in 1898, and her daughter Irene was among the first people it killed: She died of leukemia several years after an accidental polonium exposure in her laboratory.

At least two people connected with Israel’s nuclear programme also reportedly died after exposure to the element, according to the limited literature on the subject.

But polonium’s most famous victim was Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian spy-turned-dissident who died in London in 2006 after a lingering illness. A British inquiry found that he was poisoned with polonium slipped into his tea at a sushi restaurant.

Preparations began earlier this month, when the Palestinian Authority removed the marble stones covering Arafat’s grave. The site has been closed to the public since mid-November, and a blue tarp covers the area around the grave.

It will take months for the scientists to finish analysing the samples they collect. Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days, meaning that half of the substance decays roughly every four-and-a-half months. 

Researchers will have to wait through at least one half-life to study the decay in their samples: Natural polonium replenishes itself after decaying, while unsupported polonium does not.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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