AFP, RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories
One of the Middle East’s greatest political mysteries will come a step closer to being solved tomorrow, when scientists exhume iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s remains to see if he was poisoned.
“It is very painful. It is a shock, and it is not easy for myself or my daughter, but we must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death. If there was a crime, it must be solved,” Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, said by telephone from her home in Malta ahead of the highly controversial procedure.
Rumors and speculation have surrounded Arafat’s death ever since a quick deterioration of his condition saw his passing at the Percy military hospital in November 2004 at the age of 75.
French doctors were unable 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, when al-Jazeera reported Swiss findings showing abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat’s personal effects.
France followed that up in late August by opening a formal murder inquiry at Suha’s request. Polonium was the same substance that killed Russian former spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, dismissed the probe as misguided.
“Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat,” Regev said in July. “All the medical files are in the hands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication.”
The laborious process at the site of Arafat’s mausoleum in the West Bank’s Muqataa complex from which the late leader ruled will see French experts work alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia.
The Swiss are here because they were the first to analyze the Arafat samples submitted to them by al-Jazeera.
The Russians’ presence has not been fully explained by the Palestinians. However the country is responsible for most of the world’s polonium production and should therefore have the expertise to handle remains of the dangerous substance.
The operation will be hidden from the public by a blue plastic sheeting designed to give discretion to a procedure that many — including some family members — have compared to a desecration.
The exhumation echoes “some highly sensitive issues,” one Western diplomat in Ramallah conceded as workers prepared to assume their unusual task.
Experts believe that little will remain of Arafat’s tissue and that the scientists will only be able to secure samples of his bone — which may have degenerated into powdered form — or threads of his clothing.
Some experts have also questioned if anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short half-life and dissipates quicker than some other radioactive substances.
However, the Palestinians have already launched preliminary work on the grave and all the pieces are in places for the samples to be taken away for subsequent analysis in France.
Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian inquiry team, said the tomb would be opened tomorrow, samples taken and a reburial ceremony held the same day.
Not all the Arafat family members are pleased.
The late leader’s nephew, Nasser al-Qidwa — one of the most vocal critics of the entire process — said he found the whole process disturbing and akin to a “desecration.”
“No good can come out of this at all,” Qidwa said in an interview. “It does no good to the Palestinians.”
Qidwa said that most people in the West Bank already believed that Arafat had been poisoned and did not require any further proof.
“I do not understand this exhumation,” he said. “The French took all the samples they wanted [at the time of his death].”