Eight years after the death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his remains were exhumed yesterday, with experts set to test for signs that the late president was poisoned.
The process was carried out in secrecy, with Arafat’s grave carefully shielded from the public eye and media kept far away, but Palestinian sources confirmed the remains had been removed for testing yesterday morning.
“At 5am, experts began to remove the stones and began opening the grave in an orderly fashion. The remains were then transferred to a mosque adjacent to the grave for the removal of samples,” a Palestinian source told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The source said only a Palestinian doctor would be allowed to directly touch the remains and remove the samples, but that the process was being conducted in front of Swiss, Russian and French experts.
After the samples are removed, the remains are to be reburied in a military ceremony expected to be broadcast on Palestinian television.
The samples being collected are to be tested for the radioactive substance polonium in a new probe into whether Arafat was poisoned.
The probe was prompted by an investigation carried out by the al-Jazeera news channel, which commissioned a Swiss lab to test Arafat’s personal effects that were given to them by his widow, Suha.
The tests revealed the presence of the toxic substance polonium, and prompted calls for the exhumation of Arafat’s remains.
Polonium was the substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
France opened a former murder inquiry into Arafat’s death in late August at Suha’s request and French judges in charge of the investigation arrived in Ramallah on Sunday to participate in the exhumation.
Rumors and speculation have surrounded Arafat’s death ever since the quick deterioration of his health before he died at the Percy Military Hospital near Paris in November 2004 at the age of 75.
Doctors were unable at the time to say what killed the Palestinians’ first democratically elected president and an autopsy was never performed, at his widow’s request.
However, many Palestinians believed he was poisoned by Israel — a theory that gained ground in July following the al-Jazeera report.
The samples will be flown to laboratories in the three countries involved, with results expected within several months.
However, some experts have questioned whether anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short half-life.