RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials said Thursday that they are planning to exhume the body of the late leader Yasser Arafat, as conspiracy theories reignited over his cause of death.
The officials said that if the appropriate paperwork is filed, they will exhume Arafat’s body by the end of the month, as the Palestinian public increased calls for an independent investigation.
Traces of a rare radioactive substance on the clothing last worn by Arafat have reignited conspiracy theories that the famed Palestinian leader was felled by an assassin’s hand.
His widow, Suha Arafat, allowed the Al Jazeera news channel to take her husband’s last belongings to a Swiss lab for testing. The results found high levels of polonium-210, a rare and deadly radioactive element.
Arafat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize as he led the struggle for Palestinian statehood for four decades, died on Nov. 11, 2004, in a French hospital at age 75 after suffering from what doctors described as a “mysterious illness.”
Medical teams from the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia all treated Arafat, and French doctors announced that he had died of a massive stroke after suffering from inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation – though they did not provide an explanation for why he had suddenly come down with those ailments.
On Thursday, Tunisian officials said they would call for the Arab League to establish an international committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death. Despite widespread accusations that Israel had long sought to assassinate Arafat, some have questioned whether those closest to Arafat may have played a role.
“In the last years of his life, (Arafat) was confined to just one building, the Muqata, by the Israelis. His inner circle was around him night and day, and they were responsible for any visitors who came to see him,” said one Palestinian official who is close to the Arafat family. The official, not authorized to speak to the media and insisting on anonymity as a condition for comments, added that many of those who spent Arafat’s final years closest to the Palestinian leadership had been adamant that he be buried without an autopsy.
Polonium-210 is a rare substance that scientists estimate is 250,000 times more lethal than cyanide if ingested.
The most famous case of polonium poisoning was Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with polonium-210 at a London hotel.
Those closest to Arafat have said that he suddenly fell ill on the evening of Oct. 12, 2004, after eating supper in the Muqata compound. Within weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was evacuated by helicopter and taken to France.
His death came as the Israelis and the Palestinians were deadlocked in peace negotiations and the second intifada raged with daily violence in the Palestinian territories and Israel.
“Every Palestinian remembers the day we learned our leader had died. The funeral was a true day of mourning like we had lost our father,” said Bassem Abou Fadel, a Palestinian businessman who lives opposite the gleaming memorial site where Arafat is buried. “He was the end of real hope, real leadership for many of us.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.