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Despite Swiss report, controversy over Arafat's death continues

The publication of the Swiss inquiry into the death of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat does not offer an end to the debate over whether he was poisoned.
A Palestinian student walks past a mural depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City November 7, 2013. Swiss scientists who conducted tests on the remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose widow Suha says he was poisoned by radioactive polonium, will give a news conference on Thursday on their findings. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW SOCIETY) - RTX153OJ

Many questions were left unanswered even after the publication of the final conclusions by the  Swiss researchers, who examined Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s corpse. Was the Palestinian leader poisoned by the Israelis? Did Ariel Sharon, then prime minister of Israel, give the order to assassinate him? After all, Sharon loathed Arafat and referred to him as “the dog in the Muqata.” The possibility cannot be discounted entirely, especially when considering a news conference that took place in January 2002. The Karine A arms ship that Arafat ordered had just been seized while making its way from Iran to Gaza, and at a news conference, then Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was caught on microphone whispering to Sharon: “We have to get rid of him.”

Mofaz was one of the people who initiated the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004. Like Sharon, he wanted to get rid of Arafat, but unlike Yassin, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority was protected by then-US President George W. Bush. Sharon had promised Bush that he wouldn’t harm Arafat, and according to his office manager, attorney Dov Weisglass, he kept his promise. After all, he had no reason to break it. Arafat was holed up in the Muqata in Ramallah and had no influence. At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore that Israel had plenty of reasons to cause Arafat’s death during the second intifada. The chairman of the Palestinian Authority was then perceived as the person pulling the strings from above during an uprising that included numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians in the center of the country.

Regardless, before the Arafat file is closed and a finger is pointed at Israel, there are still several questions raised by the Swiss report:

  1. The investigators, Dr. Patrice Magnin, director of Lausanne University Hospital's forensics center, and Francois Bochud, director of the university’s Institute of Radiation Physics, said in a news conference that they organized: “Can we exclude polonium as the cause of death? The response is clearly ‘no.’ Was polonium the cause of the death for certain? The answer is no. However, the likelihood that he was poisoned is 83%, and based on all of our evaluations, the high levels of Polonium 210 in the samples we tested indicate that he was intentionally poisoned.” How did they come to that exact number of 83%? Why not 85%? Or 86%? How did they hone their conclusion so precisely?
  2. Dr. Ehud Neeman, an Israeli radiation expert, has ridiculed the Swiss team’s findings. He told the Israeli media that eight years after the fact there is no way that any remains of the polonium allegedly injected into the chairman’s body would be found. According to him, it is also possible that polonium might have been taken from the ground with the samples taken from his corpse. 
  3. In the years preceding Arafat’s death, the Muqata in Ramallah was a war zone. To intensify the sense of siege, IDF bulldozers chipped away at the compound again and again, until they came right outside Arafat’s bedroom. If any amount of polonium was stored there, it is reasonable to assume that some of it permeated the ground in the region.
  4. Rumors that Arafat was poisoned by the Israelis have been around since November 2004. For some Palestinians, it was inconceivable that their leader, the man with nine lives, died of a disease like some ordinary person. The rumors circulated extensively because it was decided immediately after his death, to seal Arafat’s medical file and not to release the exact cause of death. What were they hiding? Why did his widow, Suha Arafat, who is waging a relentless campaign to uncover the truth, make such an effort back then to keep the cause of death a secret?
  5. Arafat’s personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, died two years ago in Amman. At the time of Arafat’s death, however, he told Israeli journalists Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel that Arafat died of AIDS. Similarly, Ahmed Jibril, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station in 2007 that senior Palestinian officials told him that the Rais died of AIDS. And if that is not enough, John Loftus, a former prosecutor with the Justice Department, said last year that the CIA knows that Arafat died of AIDS. Yet despite these testimonies, Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi and other senior Palestinian officials said that the military hospital in France, where their leader died, had eliminated the possibility that Arafat was infected with the disease. 

One other point that should be noted is the response of senior Palestinian Authority officials to the report’s conclusion. It would only be natural for us to hear wall-to-wall condemnations and accusations that Israel was behind a political assassination, just as Suha Arafat described it. And yet, apart from the response of Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the PLO’s Central Committee, which called for an international investigation, the people who were really closest to Arafat haven’t yet said a word. 

Considering all these open questions, the only clear conclusion that can be drawn from the Swiss forensics investigation is that the debate surrounding Arafat’s death is far from over.

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