The remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed from his grave so international forensic experts can search for additional clues as to the circumstances of his death, Palestinian officials said Tuesday.
The exhumation began before dawn, under the cover of huge sheets of blue tarpaulin draped over Arafat’s mausoleum in his former government compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The official said some of the remains were moved to a nearby mosque, but that the team then encountered technical difficulties. He would not elaborate. The experts decided to return the remains to the grave and take the samples without moving what was left of the body, the official said.
By mid-morning, the grave was reclosed, said Tawfiq Tirawi, a former Palestinian intelligence chief who heads the investigation into Arafat’s death.
The samples were to be handed over to French, Swiss and Russian experts who flew in for the exhumation and would examine them in their home countries, the officials said. Earlier, samples were also taken from Arafat’s bedroom, office and personal belongings, they said.
The ostensible detection earlier this year of a lethal radioactive substance on clothing said to be Arafat’s sparked a new investigation into his 2004 death.
Public reaction in the West Bank was mixed.
Nidaa Younes, a Palestinian government employee, said it was unnecessary to dig up the remains. “Our religion forbids exhuming graves. It is not nice at all to do this, even if religion permits it in some cases,” she said, adding that she believes Israel was responsible for Arafat’s death.
Ramallah resident Tony Abdo said he supports the exhumation, expecting it to prove that Arafat did not die a natural death.
Arafat died in November 2004 in a French military hospital, a month after suddenly falling ill. Palestinian officials claim he was poisoned by Israel, but have not presented evidence. Israel has denied the allegations.
Arafta’s widow, Suha, said on Thursday that the exhumation of her husband’s body was painful but necessary.
“It is very painful. It is a shock, and it is not easy for myself or my daughter,” Arafat told AFP. “But if you must know the truth, it is necessary for our people, for the families of the martyrs of Gaza,” she said in apparent reference to the Palestinians who were killed by Israeli airstrikes during the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
“We must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death,” Suha added. “If there was a crime, it must be solved.”
Then the Palestinian Authority president, Arafat was reported by his doctors in Ramallah to be suffering from flu in late October 2004, and was treated by a team of Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Tunisian doctors for what were then described as symptoms of “anorexia, nausea and nasal congestion.” His condition deteriorated, and he was helicoptered to Jordan and then taken by French government jet to France and admitted to Percy Military Training Hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart.
In July, al-Jazeera claimed that tests carried out by the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne had found traces of polonium on Arafat’s belongings in quantities much higher than could occur naturally. A spokesman for the institute, however, said “conclusions could not be drawn as to whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned or not.”
A leading French doctor who teaches at Percy recently told The Times of Israel that, based on Arafat’s medical report, there is “absolutely no way” the Palestinian leader was poisoned.
Dr. Roland Masse, a member of the prestigious Académie de Médecine, said the symptoms of polonium poisoning would have been “impossible to miss,” noting that Percy had tested Arafat for radiation poisoning, and revealed that the hospital specializes in the related field of radiation detection. “A lethal level of polonium simply cannot go unnoticed,” he clarified.
Masse elaborated: “When in contact with high levels of polonium, the body suffers from acute radiation, which translates into a state of anemia and a severe decrease in white blood cells. And yet Arafat did not present any of those symptoms. What did decrease was his platelets, not his white blood cells.”
While his widow insisted that the procedure was in no way “degrading,” the former PLO leader’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa told AFP he found the whole process disturbing and akin to a “desecration.”
“No good can come out of this at all,” Qidwa said in an interview. “It does no good to the Palestinians.”
Qidwa argued that most Palestinians already believed that Arafat had been poisoned and did not require any further proof.