For years now, Qatar’s state news agency, Al Jazeera, has been on a crusade to prove that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, was poisoned by the Israelis. Now, one of the groups tasked with investigating the case claims that a radioactive isotope was probably used to murder him.
Who knows? Maybe someday someone will unearth evidence proving that Israel finally did him in. Arafat, after all, was a mass murder who popularized the nihilistic targeting of civilians (sometimes American citizens ) in planes, boats, buses, stores and schools; women, children, men, the handicapped, Israelis, tourists — it didn’t matter much, as long as there were Jews milling about. Along the way, he also triggered bloody Arab civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon. And when he was handed an opportunity to make peace, getting almost everything he desired, he rejected it and brought more needless suffering to his people. Neither a head of state nor a statesman, Israel had every moral right to dispose of the man whose ideas made 9/11 a reality.
Three teams, one from France, Russia and Swiss, were initially tasked with the investigation. First they examined various Arafat artifacts and then, in 2012, exhumed what was left of his body to search for polonium – a radioactive element that has since been unearthed as a weapon used in assassinations, most famously against Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Two teams have yet to make their findings public, but, according to Al Jazeera, scientists at Lausanne University Hospital’s Institute of Radiation Physics in Switzerland have concluded that “the results moderately support the proposition that the death was the result of poisoning with polonium-210.”
Arafat’s widow, Suha, told Reuters that the report “confirmed all our doubts” and that “we are revealing a real crime, a political assassination.” (Suha, incidentally, was the one who had forbidden an autopsy of Arafat when he died.)
But the allegation are unconvincing for a number of reasons.
There’s no real medical evidence.
The French military hospital where Arafat died has never released the over 500-page records on the case. (You don’t have to be House to believe that a medical report is an invaluable tool in determining why and how a person dies.) Never mind that at the time of his death, the Palestinian Authority’s then-foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, said he “totally” ruled out the poison theory. And never mind that Russian scientist Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency, told the Interfax news agency in 2012 that Arafat “could not have died of polonium poisoning – the Russian experts found no traces of this substance”. What we do know is that Arafat’s health was visibly deteriorating for years. Which makes sense. He died at the age of 75, which is the average life expectancy in the Palestinian territories, not 55 or 45.
The polonium evidence sounds fishy.
As soon as the rumors of poison began circulating, experts questioned whether Arafat could have died of polonium poisoning, considering he had experienced brief recovery periods inconsistent with radioactive exposure. And when the Swiss claimed to have found high levels of polonium on Arafat’s toothbrush and clothing, Dr. Ely Karmon, a specialist in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism, argued that the radioactive material was almost certainly planted, as the half-life of the substance would make it impossible for polonium to have been found at high levels if it had been used to kill Arafat eight years earlier.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer at Wired who has done some of the most fascinating writing on the science of the case, has been skeptical from the beginning:
If you read through the report, you find that the Swiss researchers build their case for elevated Po-210 exposure based primarily on finding a high energy signature, characteristic of the element, using gamma ray spectroscopy and by the distinct presence of the lead isotopes produced in polonium decay. They note that lead can interfere with the fainter polonium signal (meaning that they could be underestimating the results) but that all of this is somewhat complicated by a high level of naturally occurring radon in the grave. This is a complication because the polonium and lead isotopes are part of the radon decay chain. They then argue that radon contamination would lead to an overall increase in those isotopes rather than the concentrated levels in certain bone fragments, which are more characteristic of a poisoning. They go onto qualify any and all of their results by noting that “when considering radio-toxicological elements, one must keep in mind that they have a very short-half life rendering their detection after eight years very difficult and subject to large uncertainties.”
The BBC (where the tone has been, as you can surely imagine, far less skeptical) spoke to an expert in radiation detection that likened using the tiny fraction of Po-210 available on the body and extrapolating it back to the time of Arafat’s death to “a blind man holding the tail of an elephant and using the information to work out the size of the animal.”
“It is impossible to take any of this seriously,” Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman pointing out that the evidence “is not even pseudo-science. If Arafat had been killed by polonium, the entire area in which he was buried would have been affected. People working there would have been affected. It is a well-known site in the center of Ramallah. The environment in which he had lived would have been contaminated. How is it possible that now we find polonium, but the French hospital in which he died detected none at all?”
No one has given any plausible reason for why no other polonium was found.
Jeffery Goldberg, in an interesting piece laying out theories about Arafat’s death, points to a 12-year-old New Yorker feature he wrote about Ariel Sharon, the famously combative general, who was prime minister of Israel when Arafat died.
Sharon was blunt on the subject of Arafat. “He’s a murderer and a liar,” he said. “He’s an enemy. He’s a bitter enemy.” Sharon has devoted a great deal of time and energy to Arafat. By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly. “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort—and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader—to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.”
Maybe Sharon finally got to his archenemy. But if you read the entire piece, he sounds more like a man who knows he’s missed his chance and is venting. There have been, in fact, numerous accounts of Israel letting Arafat off the hook. According to New York Times piece in 2002, for instance, “An Israeli sniper is said to have had Mr. Arafat in his sights as the Palestinian leader boarded a ship to leave Beirut for Tunis, but he did not receive the order to fire.”
And, by 2004, the Israelis had little reason to do it. If anything they were probably happy to keep him alive. Inept, confined to his crumbling headquarters in Ramallah, caught between numerous factions within his own circles, and without any genuine American support, why would Israel have picked that moment to kill him? Certainly, Israel had no interest in making Hamas stronger. It wouldn’t have made much sense. It is just as likely, perhaps more plausible considering the access they had, that a political rival would have murdered him. That’s if, of course, he was murdered at all.
Whatever the truth is — and let’s be honest, we’ll probably never know for sure — the Palestinians will, no doubt, use this theory to reaffirm what they already believe about Israel and, in turn, feed more of the anger, recrimination and historical fiction that makes any lasting peace impossible. But that is, no doubt, what Al Jazeera is hoping for.