‘Absolutely no way’ Arafat was poisoned, says top doctor who teaches at Paris hospital where Palestinian leader died

Arafat was tested for radioactive poisoning, and symptoms would have been ‘impossible to miss,’ Roland Masse, a specialist on radioactivity and professor at Percy military hospital, tells Times of Israel

PARIS — A leading French doctor who teaches at the Paris hospital where Yasser Arafat died in 2004 has broken the official French medical silence surrounding the case to tell The Times of Israel, based on Arafat’s medical report, that there is “absolutely no way” the Palestinian leader was poisoned.

Dr. Roland Masse, a member of the prestigious Académie de Médecine who currently teaches radiopathology at Percy Military Training Hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart, where Arafat was hospitalized two weeks before his death on November 11 eight years ago, spoke to The Times of Israel to scotch the allegations of polonium poisoning two weeks before a group of scientists are set to take samples for testing from Arafat’s body.

Masse said the symptoms of polonium poisoning would have been “impossible to miss,” noted 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 said, speaking as workers in Ramallah on Tuesday began the process of preparing Arafat’s grave for exhumation.

Dr. Thierry Revel, the head of the Hematology Department at Percy who signed the medical report on November 14, 2004, has refused to comment on the case. Indeed, medical confidentiality laws prevent doctors in France from divulging any information on their current or past patients. It was Arafat’s family that chose to make public the late Palestinian leader’s medical report; Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news outlet, said in July that it had received the report from Arafat’s widow Suha.

In a telephone interview with The Times of Israel, Masse said flatly that “there is absolutely no way the symptoms described in Yasser Arafat’s medical report match those of poisoning by polonium.”

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,” said Masse, who may have been prepared to discuss the case because he does not treat patients at Percy, only teaching there. (He said the medical team at Percy would have had no need to consult with him, given their high level of expertise.)

Noting that radiation detection happens to be one of the areas in which Percy military hospital excels, Masse said that while Arafat’s medical report contains no specific reference to a test for polonium, it does specify that a number of tests were conducted to check if the patient had been subjected to radioactive substances.

Polonium-210, which Yasser Arafat’s widow Suha believes may have caused her husband’s death, is a rare chemical that became more familiar to the public a few years ago when it was used to murder Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, in London in 2006.

If “abnormal levels of radioactive polonium” were found on Arafat’s clothing by scientists in Switzerland in July, eight years after his death, Masse said, the Palestinian leader would have had to be in contact with an extremely high level of the chemical before his death. This would have been impossible to miss for any doctor at the time, Masse said, not to mention dangerous for other people surrounding Arafat. “Remember the Litvinenko case,” Masse continued. “We discovered after his death that hundreds of people had been subjected to various levels of contamination, in the UK and other countries.”

Masse was in charge of “national radioactivity supervision” in France in the 1990s — as head of the Office de Protection des Rayonnements Ionisants (OPRI — the Bureau for Protection against Ionizing Radiation), which worked under the authority of the French Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour to protect French citizens and the environment from the effects of ionizing radiation. In the job, he said, he received daily alerts about the presence of far lower levels of radioactive elements than would have been necessary to kill a man; these alerts came from waste collection sites, for example, and from people who had recently undergone medical treatments involving the application of radioactive substances.

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.

Members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard stand at the grave of Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)
Members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard stand at the grave of Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Bernat Armangue,)

On arrival, Arafat was diagnosed with “thrombocytopenia and persistent digestive problems,” according to his medical report. After a series of tests, the doctors specified that Arafat suffered from Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a blood disorder which leads to the formation of small blood clots throughout the body and can be the result of a number of diseases. Arafat’s health then rapidly deteriorated. He fell into a coma on November 3 and died eight days later.

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 team from the Swiss institute visited Arafat’s grave last week, with a view to an exhumation on November 26. A French expert team is conducting a parallel probe of his death, and Russian investigators are said to be involved too.

On Tuesday, Palestinian sources said, two weeks of work to open Arafat’s grave began, with the removal of “concrete and stones from Arafat’s mausoleum,” according to AFP. “There are several phases,” the news agency quoted a Palestinian source saying. “It starts with the removal of stone and concrete and cutting the iron (framework) until they reach the soil that covers the body, which will not be removed until the arrival of the French prosecutors, Swiss experts and Russian investigators.”

Arab conspiracy theories have posited that Israel killed Arafat, an allegation Israel has denied.

The French Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for the Percy hospital, told The Times of Israel that, given the formal complaint submitted by the Arafat family over the case, the ministry “cannot comment on the case due to confidentiality of investigation laws.”

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