Why did it take so long to investigate Arafat's death?
Nine years to the day since the death of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat in a Paris hospital, it seems we now know the cause – though not the perpetrators.
The Palestinian authorities themselves, desperate to maintain some kind of dialogue, must take responsibility for the appalling delay in opening an investigation.
Last night’s Al Jazeera documentary pieced together the complex and often contradictory history of what happened after Arafat’s death and why it has taken so long to get this far.
Given his huge stature amongst Palestinians world-wide and the killing of most of long-standing comrades like Abu Jihad by the Israeli state, his death was always going to be wracked with controversy.
The exact circumstances of how and why Arafat fell ill in his Rafah compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah in the autumn of 2004 were never clarified at the time and no autopsy was carried out.
But now we have the results of a nine-month investigation by 10 Swiss scientists from Lausanne. Their 108-page report, based on samples taken after Arafat’s body was exhumed in November 2012, states that abnormal levels of radioactive polonium-210 were found in his pelvis, ribs, and in the dirt on his body. The report says that 18 times the normal level of polonium was found, raising the likelihood of poisoning to 83%, much to the scientists’ surprise.
British forensic scientist David Barclay believes that the Swiss results conclusively show that Arafat was poisoned. He says the levels of polonium were 36 times higher than in a normal person and were “smack in the middle” of what would constitute a fatal dose.
The announcement follows the Swiss scientists’ discovery last month, reported by The Lancet medical journal, that they had found traces of polonium in separate tests on Arafat's clothing.
Arafat had been held virtual prisoner in the compound, which was under Israeli siege, for the last three years of his life. His death has been surrounded with rumours and counter-rumours ever since. But the most shocking thing about his death are the strenuous efforts made to prevent the true circumstances from becoming known.
Most parties retrospectively admit it was a mistake not to have held an autopsy back in 2004. But it was only the work by Al Jazeera which built up momentum, causing the French authorities to open up a criminal investigation in 2012, and eventually obtain the Palestine National Authority’s permission to exhume the body.
It’s clear that leading PNA members, including Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qudwa, PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas and security chief Tawfik Tirawi, sought to delay and undermine efforts by Arafat’s widow Suha as well as the Swiss scientists.
The PNA insisted on sending tissue samples to a Russian forensic team, which it turns out, was completely at the mercy of Russia’s foreign ministry. Al Jazeera journalist Clayton Swisher and his cameraman were pursued and hounded by PNA security men in Rafah. Several agents rifled through the news team’s hotel room, and tailed them by car.
Al-Qudwa claimed that Palestinian leaders decided not to allow an autopsy back in 2004 as it “would have been seen as a huge betrayal by the Palestinian people”, who “were not ready for it”. They feared disrupting negotiations with Israel – the so-called “peace process”, and that anger over Arafat’s possible assassination could spark an “Arab spring” in Palestine.
The nine years since Arafat’s death have made matters worse for the Palestinians. In the West Bank, Israeli settlements have expanded to the point where a viable independent state is a non-starter.
Gaza remains under blockade. Jamal al Khodari, chairman of the Popular Committee against the Siege says the situation in the Gaza Strip is an “humanitarian catastrophe”. There is hardly any clean water and an electricity crisis. All but one border crossing have been closed by the Israel authorities.
Suha Arafat is right to say that peace negotiations with the Israelis should be halted and that the perpetrators of the crime against her husband identified. What is also increasingly clear is that one state for all the citizens of Palestine and Israel remains the real solution.
A World to Win secretary
11 November 2013