A French court has opened a murder inquiry into the death eight years ago of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, prosecutors said on Tuesday, following claims by his widow that he may have been poisoned.
Arafat died in a Paris military hospital in November 2004, a month after being flown, seriously ill, from his battered headquarters in Ramallah, where he had been effectively confined by Israel for more than two-and-a-half years.
Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the inquiry. However, he said the Arab League would also call at the UN for an international investigation into the death of Arafat, who led Palestinians’ campaign to create a state through years of war and peace.
Allegations of foul play have long surrounded Arafat’s demise after French doctors who treated him in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death.
Many Arabs suspect Israel of being behind his decline and the case returned to the headlines last month when a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of the radioactive element polonium-210 on Arafat’s clothing supplied by his widow, Suha.
That substance was found to have killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Suha asked a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to open a murder investigation following the revelations publicized by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite TV channel.
However, the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne said that symptoms described in Arafat’s medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and conclusions could not be drawn as to whether he had been poisoned.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he hoped the French inquiry would reveal more on the circumstances of Arafat’s death.
“This does not pertain to us. The complaint lodged by Suha Arafat with the French police does not address Israel or anyone in particular,” he said. “If the French justice system has decided to open an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on this matter.”
Erekat said a Palestinian committee investigating the death would continue its work.
“We welcome the [French] decision,” he said. “We believe our political and medical team is working in parallel [with the French inquiry]. At the same time the Arab League has now formed a committee, which will call for an international investigation through the UN Security Council.”
Arafat was confined by Israel to his compound after a Palestinian uprising and was already in poor health when he collapsed in October 2004. At first Arafat’s aides said he was suffering from influenza, but, looking weak and thin — and telling aides “God willing, I will be back” — he was flown to France where he slipped into a coma and died on Nov. 11.
A former Israeli official denied the allegations.
Dov Weisglass was chief of staff to the Israeli prime minister when Arafat died in 2004. He says Israel had no interest in harming the Palestinian leader at the end of his political career.
Weisglass told Army Radio yesterday that Israel permitted Arafat to seek medical treatment in France so Israel could not be accused of exacerbating his illness.