RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Yasser Arafat was buried in 2004, tens of thousands thronged his funeral amid a charged atmosphere in which many swore revenge for the death of the father of Palestinian nationalism On Tuesday, only a few were on hand as Arafat’s political heirs exhumed his body in a final effort to determine what killed the iconic Palestinian leader.
Arafat died in a French hospital in November 2004 after a short and mysterious illness that Palestinians widely blamed on Israel. The precise cause of death was never established, and over the years various theories have been proposed, ranging from AIDS to a rare blood disease. Then, over the summer, a Swiss institute announced that it had found trace evidence of the radioactive and highly poisonous substance polonium-210 on Arafat’s belongings. Within weeks Arafat’s widow, Suha, gave permission for her husband’s body to be exhumed.
Only a handful of people were present – among them Swiss, Russian and French forensic experts, a Palestinian doctor and Palestinian officials – when Arafat’s grave was opened in the predawn hours.
Low clouds hung around the hilltop where Arafat’s mausoleum sits adjacent to the Palestinian presidential palace. Large blue plastic tarps had been placed around the mausoleum weeks ago, concealing it and the connected memorial site, an oblong modern structure made of local limestone known as “Jerusalem Stone.”
Palestinian officials already have warned the public that there’ll be no immediate results. It will take at least four months for experts at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland to study the samples taken from the grave and issue a verdict.
Forensic experts have expressed doubt that any trace evidence of polonium could be found eight years after Arafat’s death. Darcy Christen, a spokesman for the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, has warned that polonium-210 degrades quickly, and traces of the isotope now would be extremely low.
In Ramallah, Arafat is still seen as the wily father of Palestinian nationalism, who for 40 years symbolized his people’s longing for an independent state. For many, the exhumation only highlights the leadership crisis Palestinians face.
Support for the Fatah leadership in the West Bank has plummeted in recent years, with recent municipal elections garnering the lowest voter turnout in decades.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former government spokeswoman, said people had become disenchanted with their leadership over the years.
“I think people have become numb to what is going on here,” Buttu said. “Especially after failed U.N. bids and failed reconciliation efforts.”
Jihad Malouf lives in a building not far from Arafat’s tomb. He said he often passed by the area, and was surprised that Palestinians weren’t allowed to pay their respects to Arafat after the exhumation.
“This is typical of our leadership. When Arafat died we were with his grave, with his body; he was like our father. Our leadership now, they are distant from us and want to keep us distant from them,” Malouf said.
The disenchantment with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah is only underscored by the recent developments in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas, which governs there, proclaimed victory after an eight-day Israeli bombardment ended with a cease-fire. In recent months, two Arab heads of state have visited Gaza.
Samir Hilou, a 56-year-old Palestinian shopkeeper in downtown Ramallah, said he felt as if Gaza and the West Bank had become two different countries, ruled by two different factions, Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza.
“It feels like too much time has passed and we have been separate very long,” he said. “I can’t imagine Hamas and Fatah getting along in the long run.”
Maybe, he added, if Arafat were still in his prime the Palestinian people would find a way to become united.
“Only Arafat – a leader like Arafat that all the people could support – would really bring everyone together,” he said.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf