In one of the last photographs of Yasser Arafat, who succumbed to a mysterious illness in 2004, the Palestinian leader is being hustled into a helicopter that would shuttle him to a Paris hospital for treatment. It was the last time he was seen alive in the Middle East.
In the nine years since, rumours that Arafat’s death was the result of foul play—either at the hands of Israeli enemies or Palestinian rivals—have never really gone away. A potentially explosive new Al Jazeera documentary, What Killed Arafat?, the result of a nine-month investigation, has reignited the conspiracy theories with a bang. The Qatar-based broadcaster is suggesting Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210, the same radioactive element that killed Russian KGB-agent-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
In October 2004, three years into a Palestinian uprising, Arafat collapsed from what was initially thought to be a severe flu. The 75-year-old, weakened and thin, was quickly flown to a French hospital specializing in blood disorders. On Nov. 11, two weeks after his arrival in Paris, he died, leaving behind his wife and a daughter, as well as myriad questions about his rapid decline.
Last fall, Suha, Arafat’s widow, handed over her late husband’s medical records and some personal items—underwear, a toothbrush and his trademark black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh—to Swiss researchers working for Al Jazeera. They found “surprisingly” high levels of polonium.
While the agent can be found in everyday products like tobacco and static eliminators, researchers found levels “too high” to be naturally occurring, says Robert Emery, a University of Texas radiation expert. And Arafat, he adds, showed signs of polonium poisoning as his health deteriorated: vomiting, diarrhea and purpura—pinpoint-sized hemorrhaging under the skin, which leaves tell-tale splotchy red marks.
Still, skeptics abound; the half-life of polonium is a mere 138 days, meaning a sample’s potency drops by half during that period. At this point, less than one per cent of the original material would still be present. And there is speculation that Arafat’s illness worsened in Paris, where he received a full-body blood transfusion before falling into a coma.
Though Arafat’s medical records were not made public in 2004—adding fuel to rumours—the New York Times obtained a copy in 2005. Those records show Arafat died from a stroke, the result of a bleeding disorder caused by an infection; no poison was mentioned.
If, however, the poisoning theory is proved correct, Elliott Abrams, a former national security adviser for the George W. Bush administration, says he doesn’t believe Israel—which has always maintained it had no involvement in his death—would be to blame.
Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon “promised president Bush he wouldn’t [kill Arafat],” says Abrams, now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I was present several times when Bush raised this subject,” he adds. Abrams says the allies discussed Arafat repeatedly because the Israeli army, at the time, had been surrounding his Mukataa compound in Ramallah for two years, a bid to drive him from power. “The president said to Sharon on a couple occasions: ‘Don’t think about taking Arafat out,’ ” says Abrams. “I don’t believe Sharon would have risked destroying his relationship with Bush by doing that.”
Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave the go-ahead for Arafat’s remains to be exhumed from the mausoleum in the West Bank where he was buried. He is also seeking an international investigation into the death of his predecessor. If Arafat is in fact found to have been poisoned, the next round of questions are no less explosive: who killed him? And who was complicit on the Palestinian side?
At this point, “nothing will stop the rumour-mongering,” regardless of whether polonium is found, says Ziad Asali, a physician and president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine. It’s the West Bank equivalent of the John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, he says. No one can put the genie back in the bottle now.