Daniella Cheslow Multimedia Journalist

Daniella Cheslow
Did polonium kill Yassir Arafat?

Print published by The Times of London.

Toxicologists from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, confirmed yesterday that they had found traces of polonium-210 on the belongings of the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, fuelling suspicion that he was fatally poisoned in 2004.

It was the same radioactive material used to murder the KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London two years later.

Arafat died in a French hospital at 75 after falling ill in his Muqata headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He had symptoms of nausea, stomach pain and later liver and kidney failure, but doctors were unable to specify the cause of death.

The uncertainty led to conspiracy theories — ranging from Arafat dying from HIV/Aids to suspicions that he was poisoned by rivals or by Israel.

No post-mortem examination was carried out at the time, in line with his widow’s request, but later Suha Arafat, who is based in Paris, changed her mind. Arafat’s remains were exhumed in 2012, partly to explore whether he, like Litvinenko, had died of polonium poisoning.

In an article published in The Lancet, Swiss toxicologists detail their study of Arafat’s personal effects. They examined 38 items of Arafat’s clothing, including his hat, toothbrush, hospital gown and underwear, and tested them for polonium.

These were compared with 37 other uncontaminated cotton items. Several of Arafat’s belongings “contained higher unexplained” levels of polonium than the controls, according to the article.

The polonium samples were measured at “several mBq”, or millibecquerels, a unit of radioactivity. Computer modelling, which calculates polonium’s very fast decay, found that these levels “are compatible with a lethal ingestion of several GBq”, or several billion becquerels, in 2004, they said. “These findings support the possibility of Arafat’s poisoning with polonium-210.”

The scientists added: “Although the absence of myelosuppression [bone marrow deficiency] and hair loss does not favour acute radiation syndrome, symptoms of nausea, vomiting, fatigue, diarrhoea, and anorexia, followed by hepatic and renal failures, might suggest radioactive poisoning.”

The report does not address whether Arafat was deliberately poisoned or whether other factors could have led to his belongings being contaminated with polonium. Rather, the researchers express regret for the long delay before they could examine Arafat’s body, because polonium breaks down quickly in the body.

Palestinians say that conclusive evidence that Arafat was poisoned would point a finger at Israel. Nimr Hamad, a political adviser to Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, said last year that “to this day, we have avoided accusing Israel of being responsible for Arafat’s death … But if we find polonium in his body, it is 99.9 per cent certain that it was Israel.”

By the time Arafat died, however, his power was waning, making him less of a threat to Israel or to Palestinian political opponents.

Mark Regev, the Israeli Government’s spokesman, said that Israel had had no role in Arafat’s demise. “We’ve always denied any involvement whatsoever,” he said. “And all the medical documents are actually on the Palestinian side.”

In 2006 Litvinenko was served tea laced with polonium in London and had hair loss, vomiting and weight loss before he died in excruciating pain three weeks later.

Arafat was, and remains, a Palestinian national hero, credited with crystallising Palestinian national identity and resisting Israeli rule. Portraits of him still hang on the walls of Palestinian homes and businesses, and his tomb in Ramallah is a site of political pilgrimage.

Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA, published at The Times.