Questions still remain after polonium find

By Patrick Cockburn

Yasser Arafat.
Yasser Arafat.

Suspicions that the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned will be strengthened by the discovery by Swiss scientists of 18 times the normal level of radioactive polonium in his remains. But his death remains a whodunnit.

Arafat, who had long symbolised the Palestinians' fight for their own state, died on November 11, 2004, from an illness that was never fully diagnosed by his doctors. Swiss scientists have been carrying out tests on tissue taken from Arafat's body and personal items.

They say they are confident up to an 83 per cent level that he was poisoned and suspect that the cause may be polonium. The results are contained in an 108-page report by the University Centre for Legal Medicine in Lausanne which was obtained by Al Jazeera which had previously carried out its own inquiry.

Arafat's body was exhumed last November in Ramallah on the West Bank and 60 tissue samples were given to Swiss, French and Russian teams of forensic scientists.

Dave Barclay, a British forensic scientist and former detective, told Al Jazeera that the findings had convinced him that Arafat had been murdered. "Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning. We found the smoking gun that caused his death. The level of polonium in Yasser Arafat's rib ... is about 900 millibecquerels. That is either 18 or 36 times the average, depending on the literature."

The report examined only what killed Arafat, not whether he was deliberately poisoned. His death seriously weakened the Palestinian cause, of which he had been the enduring symbol for almost 40 years, and removed the one figure who could unite the diverse and quarrelsome Palestinian groups. Many Palestinians will be further convinced that Israel was behind his death. Israel had previously sought to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal, in Jordan in 1997 by spraying poison in his ear.

But there will be doubts about the trustworthiness of the evidence. Polonium-210, has only a brief half-life of 138.4 days so traces detected eight years after he was supposedly poisoned would be difficult to find.

There is also the question of why French doctors who were looking after Arafat in Paris - where he had been flown when he first fell ill - did not find signs that he had been poisoned in the days immediately after his death. France had bad relations with Israel at the time and had no reason to participate in a cover up.

- Independent

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