Swiss experts asked to test Arafat’s remains for radiation poisoning
Swiss radiation physicists who recently investigated the death in 2004 of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are being invited to a West Bank mausoleum to take samples from his actual remains for further tests.
The invitation to specialists from the Switzerland Institute of Radiation Physics came as the Palestinian Authority received permission for the autopsy from family members.
Mr Arafat’s nephew, former UN ambassador Nasser al-Qidwa, who was initially cool to the idea, made it clear yesterday he would not object.
In an investigation commissioned by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television and broadcast last week, researchers from the Swiss institute found elevated levels of the radioactive substance polonium on belongings used by Mr Arafat during his final days in a French military hospital that they had been given by his widow, Suha.
The researchers said the high levels may have been the result of poisoning, but stressed they would need to exhume the remains to confirm this.
Senior Palestinian officials said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was determined that the tests take place.
“I can’t tell you the time frame, but there are contacts with the people in Switzerland and others and it is only a matter of arrangements,” said Palestine Liberation Organisation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi.
“They can take the samples they want and the body will be reburied. It’s not that we will exhume the body and send it somewhere. The samples can be taken as quickly and respectfully as possible.”
With the al-Jazeera broadcast restoking longstanding bitterness from the widely held Palestinian perception that Mr Arafat was poisoned by Israel, Mr Abbas last week agreed in principle to the exhumation, which would involve unearthing the remains at a mausoleum and national shrine in Ramallah.
Israel has emphatically denied being responsible for Mr Arafat’s death although after a suicide bombing in September 2003 its leaders called for him to be “removed”, without specifying how this would be done.
Mr Qidwa said yesterday: “Our belief was always that it was an unusual death. Now all indications say he was poisoned.”
Ms Ashrawi said that along with the exhumation, an international tribunal should be formed to investigate Mr Arafat’s death, similar to the one that probed Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination. “We should have a real investigation. The Palestinian people deserve to know. They want closure and justice.”
However, because polonium decays rapidly, experts are divided over whether testing the remains can bring such closure and will produce a clue eight years after the event. Polonium was used to kill Russian former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London six years ago.
Talal Awkal, a columnist for the al-Ayyam newspaper, predicted that Israel would try to prevent the Swiss team from carrying out its mission. But Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said: “Israel is not going to influence in any way any measure the authority wants to take to investigate Mr Arafat’s death.”
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