French experts say Arafat wasn’t poisoned

Specialists conclude that Palestinian leader was not killed by radioactive substance, sources tell AFP

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Palestinian honor guard stands at the grave of the late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian honor guard stands at the grave of the late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

French experts have ruled out the possibility that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died of poisoning, according to AFP and other sources.

French media leaks indicated that the scientists who had been looking into Arafat’s death concluded he died of a “generalized infection,” the BBC reported.

“The results of the analyses allow us to conclude that the death was not the result of poisoning,” the source who saw the French report’s conclusions told Reuters.

“We are not talking about surprising news here,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Earlier in the day, Tawfiq Tiraqi, the official in charge of the Palestinian Authority investigating team, said Tuesday that he would soon identify who was responsible for Arafat’s death, Reuters reported.

“I promise that the next press conference will be the last, and will cast into the light of day everyone who perpetrated, took part in or conspired in the matter,” Tirawi said in an interview with Palestine Today television. “We are in the last 15 minutes of the investigation.”

Speaking to official Palestinian television last month, Tirawi, a retired general who served as chief of Palestinian General Intelligence in the West Bank and currently advises PA President Mahmoud Abbas on security affairs, indicated that Israel was at fault.

“How can it deny this? There is not one Palestinian leader that Israel didn’t kill. It killed leaders from all the Palestinian factions, and admits to it 10 or 20 years later. In 20 years they’ll admit to [killing] Arafat,” Tirawi said.

But Tirawi said that circumstantial evidence collected by his committee left no room for doubt that Israel was to blame. Statements made by Israeli officials in then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet calling for Arafat’s “removal” fill 70 pages of his committee’s report.

“The crime has three pillars: the first is the perpetrator, which is Israel. The second is the method, which is poisoning. The third pillar is the means of delivering the poison, which we will get to, God willing,” Tirawi said. “Whether the tool was an Arab, a foreigner or a Palestinian makes no difference. When the investigation is completed, Israel will not be able to deny it.”

In the four years leading up to his death, Arafat’s relationship with his longtime nemesis, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had become increasingly hostile. Sharon, a hard-liner, blamed Arafat for encouraging anti-Israeli violence instead of working toward a peace deal and kept him isolated at his West Bank compound for extended periods.

Arafat died November 11, 2004 at a French military hospital, a month after falling ill at his West Bank headquarters. At the time, French doctors said he died of a stroke and had a blood-clotting problem, but records were inconclusive about what caused that condition.

The Palestinians launched an investigation at the time, and Tirawi said Friday that it encompassed hundreds of statements from Palestinians and non-Palestinians in the West Bank and around the world. No suspects emerged and no arrests were made.

The investigation hit a dead end, and was only revived when the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera persuaded Arafat’s widow, Suha, last year to hand over his hospital bag with underwear, headscarves and other belongings. Mrs. Arafat has lived in exile since her husband’s death and is estranged from most of the Palestinian leadership.

The items in the bag were examined by Switzerland’s Institute for Radiation Physics, which found elevated traces of polonium.

Earlier this year, Arafat’s grave in his Ramallah compound was reopened. Swiss, Russian and French scientists were given samples of the remains and burial soil.

An Israeli expert on radiation quoted by Ynet said the Swiss report was “completely fabricated.” Dr. Ehud Ne’eman said there would be no traces of Polonium 210 if the poison was injected before 2004.

The Russian report called evidence of radioactive polonium in Arafat’s death inconclusive.

In November 2012, a leading French doctor who teaches at the Paris hospital where Arafat died told The Times of Israel, based on Arafat’s medical report, that there was “absolutely no way” the Palestinian leader was poisoned.

Arafat’s medical records concluded he died in November 2004 from a stroke “that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unidentified infection,” The New York Times reported in 2005. The paper wrote at the time that the first independent review “suggests that poisoning was highly unlikely.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry also emphatically rejected the findings of the report. “This story doesn’t hold water,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel. The Swiss investigative team was “commissioned by an interested party,” he said.

He also cast doubt on the actual scientific value of the study because the scientists said they had only an 83 percent level of confidence that he was poisoned.

“Their conclusions are inconclusive. Either he was poisoned or he wasn’t,” Palmor said. He also said the Swiss investigative team never asked for access to the medical files of the French hospital in which the Palestinian leader died. “They can’t conclude anything if they don’t ask for access to the most basic medical files.”

Anticipating accusations that Israel might have tried to kill Arafat, Palmor categorically stated that “Israel has strictly nothing to do with this.”

“The use, misuse and abuse of these investigations smack of a lack of seriousness,” he said, “and have to do with an internal Palestinian feud between [Arafat’s widow] Suha on one hand and Arafat’s successor on the other.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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