Was Arafat Poisoned?

9th death anniversary of Yasser Arafat

This week, Swiss forensic scientists examining the bones of the late leader of the Palestinian Authority found an unusually high level of polonium, leading to the conclusion of assassination. Clayton Swisher surveys the possible culprits:

There are lots of reasons to suspect Israeli responsibility. The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was vocal over the years in admitting he had tried but failed to kill Arafat. Israel had famously botched its 1997 attempt to poison the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. It appears logical for the PA – under Israeli military siege in the Muqata when Arafat suddenly became violently ill on 12 October 2004 – to claim Israel alone is to blame.

But there are many other possibilities that [lead Palestinian investigator Tawfik] Tirawi prefers to ignore. He himself was with Arafat during the siege; he was wanted by Israel, the CIA was shunning him, and he was accused of orchestrating suicide attacks against Israelis. That he was in close proximity when Arafat fell ill makes him at best a witness. For him to lead the investigation now is almost as farcical as the PA’s entire approach to date.

If Arafat was assassinated, David Harsanyi doubts that Israel carried it out:

[B]y 2004, the Israelis had little reason to do it.  If anything they were probably happy to keep him alive. Inept, confined to his crumbling headquarters in Ramallah, caught between numerous factions within his own circles, and without any genuine American support, why would Israel have picked that moment to kill him? Certainly, Israel had no interest in making Hamas stronger. It wouldn’t have made much sense. It is just as likely, perhaps more plausible considering the access they had, that a political rival would have murdered him. That’s if, of course, he was murdered at all.

To that point, David Barclay, a forensic scientist, backs the idea of poisoning:

From death statistics, the chance of this happening accidentally must be less than one in several billions for any individual living on this planet, and maybe even smaller for Arafat since his food and drink supply was apparently controlled. We are less certain, scientifically, that the calculated levels of [polonium] Po210 caused his illness and death simply because the lethal dose is less well established; but as forensic scientists, we are obliged to take into account the context, including the fact that he had no other obvious cause of death. And of course neither he, nor any of us, would have any reactor-made Po210 in our blood anyway. That fact alone would satisfy most juries that something really sinister was going on in 2004.

Deborah Blum is more skeptical, noting that “Arafat didn’t demonstrate the classic symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. He suffered no hair loss, for instance, and no signs of the usual bone marrow damage”:

The best-known example of Po-210 as a murder weapon is the 2006 killing of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London after meeting a couple former police colleagues for drinks. The killers apparently slipped the element into his tea; he was desperately sick within hours. It was later discovered that the suspected assassins had left a radioactive trail that tainted their hotel room and even the aircraft they had traveled on so as to set up the lethal meeting. …

A crucial difference, though, between the Litvinenko case and that of Arafat has to do with time elapsed. Po-210 is a highly active element in the uranium decay chain. Its half-life – the amount of time in which half the element decays away – is only 138.4 days. It was still fizzing away in Litvinenko’s body during the investigation. In the case of Arafat – who died about nine years ago – the element has essentially burned itself away. Meaning that it’s “found” in a circumstantial way, such as tests that look for residual radiation at energies typical of Po-210 emission, or the presence of a certain lead isotope (Pb-206) which is a known end-product in polonium decay.

Jeffery Goldberg leaves us with a quote from a 2001 interview he conducted with Ariel Sharon. Jeffrey wrote at the time:

Sharon was blunt on the subject of Arafat. “He’s a murderer and a liar,” he said. “He’s an enemy. He’s a bitter enemy.” Sharon has devoted a great deal of time and energy to Arafat. By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly. “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort — and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader — to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.”

Update from a reader:

The Russians did a test and said Arafat wasn’t poisoned, which contradicts the Swiss test.  At the same time, the Russians are the ones we know of who like to poison people with polonium, and 97% of the world’s polonium production occurs in Russia. Does anyone think the Russians or one of their surrogates did it? I do.

(Photo: Palestinian youth sit in front of a mural of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, at al-Shati refugee camp, as Palestinians mark the ninth anniversary of his death, in Gaza City on November 11, 2013. Arafat died in Paris on November 11, 2004 at 75 after falling sick a month earlier. Doctors were unable to specify the cause of death and no post-mortem was carried out at the time. By Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)