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Outcry Building Over Possible Polonium Poisoning of Arafat

Palestinians pass a mural depicting deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City on Wednesday. Arafat's body may be exhumed to allow for further investigation into the cause of his death, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said after a Swiss lab reported finding elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in belongings Arafat is said to have used in his final days (AP Photo/Adel Hana). Palestinians pass a mural depicting deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City on Wednesday. Arafat's body may be exhumed to allow for further investigation into the cause of his death, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said after a Swiss lab reported finding elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in belongings Arafat is said to have used in his final days (AP Photo/Adel Hana).

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat might have been the victim of assassination through radiation poisoning, according to an investigation by al-Jazeera (see GSN, Feb. 29).

Scientific analysis by the Institut de Radiophysique in Switzerland shows that a number of Arafat's personal effects, such as his toothbrush and clothing, were tainted with unusually high levels of polonium. The examined personal belongings of the longtime head of the Fatah party contained traces of his saliva, blood, urine and sweat. Testing on the biological fluids indicates there were abnormal amounts of polonium -- an uncommon radioactive isotope -- in Arafat's system when he died in November 2004.

"I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids,”  Institut head Francois Bochud said.

The results of the testing have prompted Arafat's wife, Suha, to call for the Palestinian Authority to dig up the body of her deceased husband in Ramallah in order for it to be tested for polonium. Were traces of the radioactive substance found in his skeleton, it would strongly indicate that Arafat was murdered, physicians said.

"I know the Palestinian Authority has been trying to discover what Yasser died from,” Suha Arafat told al-Jazeera. "And now we are helping them. We have very substantial, very important results."

Earlier testing of Arafat's personal belongings for hints of traditional poisons or readily available heavy metal elements did not turn up any traces, so the scientists in Switzerland began testing for less common materials such as polonium.

Naturally occurring polonium in the environment is typically found only in very trace amounts. Polonium 210 is the substance that infamously killed Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. An official U.K. investigation concluded he was killed when the rare element was dropped into his drink at a London hotel. 

Testing of Arafat's biological fluids showed much higher levels of the isotope than those found in Litvinenko. Additional laboratory analysis that ended in June found that most of the polonium discovered in the bodily substances of Arafat -- between three-fifths and four-fifths -- was not naturally occurring (Gregg Carlstrom, al-Jazeera, July 4).

Arafat's 2004 death in a French hospital was initially declared to be the result of a severe stroke. French health documents say he was afflicted with a blood condition, as well as jaundice and inflammation, the Associated Press reported.

Arafat's widow insinuated in an AP interview that Israel was behind her husband's possible assassination.

"Not the whole world has access to nuclear elements," she noted. 

Israel is widely understood to have a nuclear weapons program.

Former U.K. radiation official John Croft said the quantity of polonium required to kill someone would probably have to be sourced from a country with either a civilian or military atomic program. "You would need to have access to very sophisticated facilities," the retired expert said.

Bochud emphasized that the presence of polonium in Arafat's bodily fluids was not proof positive he had been assassinated and that more scientific analysis was needed to arrive at such a conclusion.

"What is possible to say is that we have an unexplained level of polonium, so this clearly goes toward the hypothesis of a poisoning, but our results are clearly not a proof of any poisoning," the laboratory director said in a phone interview.

University of Leeds environmental toxicology professor Alastair Hay said, "You don't know much about the provenance of the clothing and whether it had been tampered with later on. You'd want to test the body."

A few things point against polonium poisoning, such as the fact that Arafat's medical files make no mention of bone marrow damage or hair loss, according to Buchod. Were he to have been contaminated with the radioactive isotope, he likely would have experienced problems with both, Hay said. Additionally, Arafat's health for a short period grew better prior to its severe degeneration in his last days.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in released remarks said his government would fully support an exhumation and examination of his predecessor's body.

"The Palestinian Authority was and remains fully prepared to cooperate and to provide all the facilities needed to reveal the real causes that led to the death of the late president," Abbas said. "There are no religious or political reasons that preclude research on this issue, including an examination of the remains of the late president by a reliable national medical body, upon request and approval by his family."

Israeli officials rejected any consideration that their government could have poisoned Arafat.

"Making up conspiracy theories based on pretend evidence is so ludicrous that it befits the comedy channel and not a news channel. If there is anything suspicious about his death, then the French doctors would have known and said something," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said (Federman/Laub, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, July 4).

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