Former Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat may have been poisoned to death with polonium as a new investigation prompts an exhumation of his remains within days.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, called for the exhumation a day earlier in an interview with Al Jazeera, the Arabic television channel based in Qatar, after it reported that Arafat might have been poisoned with polonium, a radioactive element associated with K.G.B.-style assassination intrigues.
Saeb Erekat, a close aide of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said by telephone that once the religious authorities and Arafat’s relatives had given the go-ahead, an exhumation could take place “in the coming days.”
Then, Erekat said, the Palestinians would seek an international inquiry into Arafat’s death similar to the United Nations-backed tribunal that investigated the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
Erekat said a thorough investigation of all aspects of Arafat’s death in November 2004 was called for because “it was not so long ago.”
“Our memories are still alive,” he said.
The death of Arafat, at the age of 75, remains enveloped in mystery and contention. The report in Al Jazeera caused an uproar in the Palestinian territories, rekindling unresolved questions about the death and theories that he had been killed by agents of Israel or by Palestinian rivals.
Arafat became ill in October 2004 and was flown by helicopter out of the Muqata, his headquarters in Ramallah, in the West Bank, where he had been confined under an Israeli Army siege and virtual house arrest for more than two years. He was transferred to a French military hospital, where he died about two weeks later of unannounced causes.
Though the hospital records were never made public, fueling speculation and rumors about the cause of death, they were obtained by The New York Times in 2005. The records showed that he had died of a stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an underlying infection. The infection was never identified. The hospital found no traces of poisons.
Two Palestinian investigative committees have so far failed to produce any conclusive findings. At a fractious convention of Abbas’s Fatah Party in 2009, the first such gathering in 20 years, one point of consensus was the notion that Israel was responsible for the death of Arafat, the founder of Fatah. Delegates blamed Israel for having kept the leader under siege, and Fatah officials said they would continue to investigate the circumstances of his death, and the suspicions that Israel had poisoned him.
Israel has always denied any involvement in Arafat’s death.