This week taking a turn for the macabre with the deaths of last decade in mind. Yesterday, the Israeli army was exonerated of wrongdoing in the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, refreshing old (and seemingly misplaced) outrage at the alleged malice on the part of the IDF. Now, a new investigation into the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat is being opened on the flimsy claims of his widow Suha, who cites an al-Jazerra investigation suggesting Arafat was poisoned to death with radioactive polonium-210.
Suha Arafat has said her suspicions were raised when the hospital where her husband was treated acknowledged that they had destroyed his blood and urine samples.
The Palestinian Authority plans to exhume Arafat’s body from a limestone mausoleum in Ramallah for an autopsy and Tunisia has called for a ministerial meeting of the Arab League to discuss his death.
Arafat’s death has never clearly been explained with suspected causes ranging from the quotidian–a stroke (the semi-declared reason) or a brain hemorrhage–to the more conspiratorial causes like AIDS. The intensity of the secrecy surrounding his death–the Palestinian Authority never released the medical records in it received from the hospital–gives natural and implicit rise to suspicions of foul play. And, in instances like this, natural and implicit fingers tend to point in the direction of Israel.
An essay (brilliantly titled “Arafatuous”) by Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, did a good job to discredit the polonium claim, which he calls “baseless”:
First and most importantly, Arafat’s symptoms are well documented and completely inconsistent with 210PO (polonium) poisoning. Unlike Litvenenko, he didn’t lose his hair and his bone marrow was found to be undamaged. He also staged at least one brief recovery, which wouldn’t be possible in the case of polonium poisoning. It should be added that his symptoms were also completely inconsistent with AIDS.
Second, the Swiss lab report on which the Al Jazeera story relies, clearly states that its findings are inconclusive and provide no basis for concluding polonium poisoning, especially since his symptoms were inconsistent with that. The report also states that further testing may reveal that the 210PO levels detected may prove to have been naturally occurring, albeit unusually high.
Third, the provenance of the items in question is not well-established, and therefore the relationship between the 210PO levels discovered on them and Arafat’s condition is very much in doubt. Even an exhumation of the body, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly considering, may not prove conclusive, as 210PO has a very short half-life of 137 days.
Finally, the timing of the Al Jazeera story is extremely suspicious. The PA leadership is currently embroiled in a series of controversies involving police brutality against demonstrators, suppression of dissent, potentially politically motivated corruption trials, and a growing financial crisis that has made paying the salaries of public employees extremely difficult.
That French prosecutors are troubling themselves to reopen the floodgates of conspiracy and give credence to the martyrdom Arafat so desperately craved (which seems much of why Israel, in later years, didn’t bother trying to kill him) is silly, given the evidence disproving the claim. But there are (obviously) a ton of motivations guiding the parties to go forward with this charade, few of which have to do with justice.
A better claim worth investigating is the one made by CBS (and countless others), which estimates that Arafat at the time of his death was worth a billion dollars, largely pilfered from Palestinian taxes and foreign aid that were meant pay Palestinian civil salaries, build Palestinian infrastructure, and alleviate Palestinian poverty and suffering.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.