BBC News reports, Nov. 7, 2013, that Swiss scientists have confirmed that tests show the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had high levels of radioactive polonium in his body, 18 times higher than normal. However, they could not say whether polonium poisoning had caused his death in 2004.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, told the BBC the report proves he was assassinated, but she could not directly accuse anyone and refused to point the finger at Israel, saying Arafat had many enemies around the world.
Many Palestinians have long believed that Israel poisoned Arafat. There have also been allegations that he had AIDS or cancer. Israel has consistently denied any involvement.
The Swiss scientists were extremely cautious about their findings.
Testing for polonium 210 is fraught with difficulties because it is a very unstable element with a half-life of only 138 days. That means after four months, the amount of polonium in a sample would have halved; after a year there would be just one eighth of the original amount; and after the eight years since Arafat died, there would be a vanishingly small fraction remaining. This adds huge levels of uncertainty to any findings – as does the fact that polonium is also found naturally in the soil and air.
The scientists – from the Vaudois University Hospital Centre (CHUV) in Lausanne, Switzerland – had carried out a detailed examination of Arafat’s medical records, samples taken from his remains and items he had taken into the hospital in Paris where he died in 2004. The biological materials included pieces of Arafat’s bones and soil samples from around his corpse.
Professor François Bochud told a news conference on Thursday that the high level of polonium detected “by definition… indicates third party involvement… Our results offer moderate backing for the theory of poisoning.” But he went on to say: “Was polonium the cause of the death for certain? The answer is no, we cannot show categorically that hypothesis that the poisoning caused was this or that.”
In their report, the scientists had stressed that they had been unable to reach a more definitive conclusion because of the time that had lapsed since Arafat’s death, the limited samples available and the confused “chain of custody” of some of the specimens.
Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive substance. It is found naturally in low doses in food and in the body, but can be fatal if ingested in high doses.
Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organization for 35 years and became the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, fell violently ill in October 2004 at his compound in the West Bank. Two weeks later he was flown to a French military hospital in Paris, where he died on 11 November 2004, aged 75.
His official medical records say he died from a stroke resulting from a blood disorder.