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Middle East

Speculation surrounds cause of Arafat's death

Yasser Arafat may have been poisoned with a radioactive substance, according to a Swiss forensic report. Speculation about the cause of his death is mounting - and could impact Middle East peace talks.

The news report on Wednesday (06.11.2013) caused quite a stir: The late Palestinian leader Arafat was likely to have been poisoned with radioactive polonium, the Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera reported, citing a Swiss forensic report it had obtained.

The report quickly displaced efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to breathe new life into peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the news didn't seem to surprise Palestinians, many of whom have long assumed that Arafat did not die a natural death. "On the one hand, many now feel confirmed in their suspicion that Israel is behind this," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a political analyst with the East Jerusalem think-tank PASSIA. "On the other hand, the discussions revolve around the questions: Who was close to Arafat at the time? Who helped commit this crime? And who is the traitor?"

Growing speculation

Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), died almost exactly nine years ago on November 11, 2004, in a hospital in a Parisian suburb. No autopsy was performed.

Tomb of Yasser Arafat EPA/ATEF SAFADI

Authorities allowed Yasser Arafat's remains to be exhumed

Ever since, many have doubted that the sudden illness and death of the then-75-year-old leader had a natural cause.

His widow, Suha Arafat, together with Al Jazeera initiated the forensic investigation after traces of polonium-210 had been found on items that Arafat had taken to the hospital.

In the summer of 2012, the Palestinian Authority permitted the exhumation of his body from his tomb in Ramallah. A team of forensic experts from France, Russia and Switzerland took samples from his remains, which are being examined independently of each other.

The Swiss scientists have meanwhile submitted their 108-page report to the Palestinian Authority and Arafat's widow. The report notes levels of polonium-210 that exceed natural levels some 18-fold. But the scientists, speaking at a press conference on Thursday, said it could still not be absolutely proven that polonium was the cause of death.

When the other test results will be released is unclear.

'Crime of the century'

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Suha Arafat called her husband's death the "crime of the century."

Highly radioactive polonium-210 last made the headlines when former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed with the substance in London in 2006.

Polonium in the lab dpa/lby +++(c) dpa

Polonium is fatal to humans

Polonium is fatal to humans in small doses; the substance becomes active when it enters the body.

The fact that polonium-210 is not freely available on the market confirms what many Palestinians have believed all along - that a state or a government organization, namely Israel or its powerful intelligence agency, were involved in Arafat's death.

Israel has categorically denied this allegation. The government in Tel Aviv has called the Swiss report unserious. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson referred to the forensic investigation as a "soap opera" and criticized the experts for examining neither Arafat's working area in Ramallah for radioactive substances nor the French hospital where he died.

Regardless of what the Swiss forensic report confirms or doesn't confirm, circumstances surrounding Arafat's death raise many questions, including whether there was a traitor in his ranks.

"Most Palestinians are convinced that Israel is behind the murder," said long-time Middle East Matthew Kalman who, in his book "The Murder of Arafat," documented the events. "But the important question now is: Who was involved when Arafat was given the lethal dose of polonium? If someone had added polonium to his food or beverages, then that person had to belong to his inner-circle."

'No coincidence'

These are among the many questions that are certain to create political unrest in the ranks in Ramallah.

US Secretary of State Kerry (center-L) hosts dinner PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

The forensic study could impact Middle East peace talks

It remains unclear to what extent the Swiss forensic report will impact the already difficult peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. "I think the publication of the results at this very critical juncture of the peace talks is no coincidence," said Kalman. "The Palestinian leadership could try to gain an advantage over the Israeli position, in view of a possible collapse of the peace negations."

What is certain is that the Yasser Arafat remains a polarizing figure. For Israel, he is the symbol of a Palestinian terrorist. For many Palestinians, he is the symbol of national resistance and continues to be deeply revered today. Pictures of him still hang in numerous public buildings, right next to those of the current President Mahmud Abbas.

But in the nine years since Arafat's death, the Palestinian society has changed. The current leadership in Ramallah is focused on establishing a state and pushing diplomacy, and the young generation views the Arafat era with more of a nostalgic touch.

It remains to be seen whether anyone will ever be able to find out who was behind Arafat's death. His widow demands a full investigation and the Swiss forensic experts have taken a step toward possibly clarifying the controversial case.

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