By Ofira Koopmans –
TEL AVIV, Israel — A Swiss laboratory confirmed Wednesday that it found an abnormal amount of polonium-210 on a pair of underwear used by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
His widow, Suha, charged the surprising presence of the rare, highly radioactive element was proof he was poisoned and hinted Israel was behind it.
But Darcy Christen, the spokesman for the Institute of Radiology in Lausanne, which tested Arafat’s personal belongings at Suha’s request, said the symptoms Arafat suffered from, as described in his well-kept medical records, were inconsistent with polonium poisoning.
Describing this as “puzzling,” he told dpa the findings were “significant,” but further investigation was needed. That would mean further tests on his bones.
The Palestinian Authority said Arafat’s body, buried in Ramallah, could be exhumed.
“There is no religious or political reason that prevents further investigation into this matter, including exhuming his body by a specialized and trusted party at the request and approval of his family,” said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
Arafat died aged 75 in a military hospital outside Paris on November 11, 2004, after a bowel infection that triggered a bleeding disorder and subsequent brain hemorrhage.
Before being flown to Paris for treatment, he had been under Israeli siege at his headquarters in Ramallah. Israel had declared him an “obstacle to peace,” citing his support for a violent uprising.
Eight years after his death, Suha handed Arafat’s belongings, including underwear, pajamas and his toothbrush, to broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which sent them to the institute in Lausanne for testing. The Qatari-based station published the results late Tuesday.
Arafat’s underwear measured 180 millibecquerels of polonium-210, compared with 6.7 mBq in another man’s pair of underwear used as a control, it said. Millibecquerels are a unit for measuring radioactivity.
“We have first proof of a crime here,” Suha Arafat said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, reacting to the finding.
She called for an international investigation similar to the one into the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Polonium’s most famous victim was Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident and former spy, who according to a British inquiry died after the material was dripped into his tea at a restaurant.
But while Litvinenko lost all his hair, Arafat still had a white beard — longer even than his trademark three-day stubble because he had not shaved for days — when helicoptered to the French military hospital on Oct. 29, 2004, six days after reports that he suffered from a bad bout of flu first surfaced. He slipped into a coma on Nov. 3 and died Nov. 11.
Doctors said that normally, one of the first symptoms of radioactive poisoning was hair loss, including brows and lashes. Other symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and a low red and white blood cell count. The hair loss would occur within two or three days.
Few cases of polonium poisoning have been recorded.
A senior Israeli government official rejected the suggestion that Israel may have poisoned Arafat as “baseless.”
Many questions remain unanswered, including why neither Arafat’s wife nor the Palestinian Authority ordered an autopsy after he died.
An official Palestinian committee formed shortly after Arafat’s death so far has produced no evidence, although Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa, who heads the committee, has repeatedly accused Israel of involvement.
The New York Times, which also obtained Arafat’s French medical records, reported in 2005 that no traces of toxins were found in specimens of Arafat’s blood sent to three different laboratories.
Arafat did not have an enlarged kidney, nor did he suffer liver damage, the paper quoted the records as adding.
A senior Israeli physician, who also read the medical records, said at the time that Arafat’s illness seemed “a classic case of food poisoning that is taught at medical school.”
Rumors that Arafat was assassinated by Israel have prevailed among Palestinians over the past eight years. There have even be rumors he died of AIDS.
Suha Arafat has been on bad terms with the Palestinian Authority, which has launched anti-corruption investigations against former Arafat associates.