A review of the findings: Arafat's mystery death [murdered by poisoning]

Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qidwa told Al-Jazeera, here, that the reason there had been no autopsy on Yasser Arafat is “because the Palestinian people would have seen with their own eyes a huge betrayal, and a big crime committed against them – the crime of killing their own leader.”

From the very beginning, al-Qidwa said [to me + to others] that he believed his uncle, Yasser Arafat, had been poisoned.

He said it again in Al-Jazeera’s latest investigative documentary on Arafat’s death, “Killing Arafat”, aired on November 10: “There was clear evidence that this was a case of assassination, that Yasser Arafat was actually killed by, by poison”.

It became clear relatively quickly at the Muqata in Ramallah in October 2004 that Arafat had more than a bad case of the flu.

Saeb Erekat, perennial Palestinian chief negotiator, told Al-Jazeera that during Arafat’s final days at Percy Military Hospital outside Paris, he received a phone call from Nasser al-Qidwa, who was at the hospital. Al-Qidwa, Erekat said, asked him “to tell the Americans to ask the Israelis for the antidote.” No further information was given about what the Americans may have said or done – but no antidote seems to have been produced. Arafat died on 11 November 2004.

Over a year ago, Al-Jazeera’s documentary, What Killed Arafat?, which aired on 4 July 2012, reported stunning findings from a Swiss lab which indicated possible Polonium-210 poisoning.

This news was a jolt to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, though they had already survived, nearly unscathed, Al-Jazeera’s January 2011 “Palestine Papers”, here, a special series of reports based on documents leaked from Ramallah offices that revealed embarrassing details about Palestinian negotiating conduct during direct talks with Israel.  Clayton Swisher, now Al-Jazeera’s Investigative Journalism Manager, worked on the “Palestine Papers”.  He then worked – in close collaboration with Arafat’s widow, Suha [who’s lived abroad, with her daughter, for years] – on the two documentaries investigating Arafat’s final illness and death.

Some in the Palestinian leadership believed Al-Jazeera was out to get them.

There were subliminal messages: In “What Killed Arafat?”, Swisher states that at the time of Arafat’s death, “Regime change is exactly what Washington + Tel Aviv had in mind”.  This is superimposed over archival footage of Mahmoud Abbas speaking about democracy to the PA’s Legislative Council [PLC].

That documentary also included the archival audio of Suha Arafat calling Al-Jazeera from the hospital in France in 2004 and saying, live on air, in a strident tone: “Let the honest Palestinian people know that a bunch of those who want to inherit are coming to Paris.  You have to realize the size of the conspiracy.  I tell you, they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive”.  This audio is superimposed over footage of Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmad Qurei’a, and Sa’eb Erekat being received soon afterwards at the Elysees Palace by France’s then-President Jacques Chirac.

Nevertheless, within hours of the broadcast, Mahmoud Abbas ordered Palestinian cooperation with any investigation. By contrast, Abbas reportedly opposed an autopsy at the time of Arafat’s death – reportedly, “to avoid any problem with the French authorities”…

Nabil Shaath said in “Killing Arafat” that “the French did not really encourage an autopsy”…

Suha had also reportedly opposed an autopsy, but she denied it adamantly again, in “Killing Arafat”.  She has told Al-Jazeera that she simply was overcome and in shock, and did not even think of it.   She then told Le Figaro, in August 2012, that it would have been “dangerous” to bring up poisoning right after Arafat’s death.

However, according to an account written by two Israeli journalists in 2005, Suha refused doing a liver biopsy in a French hospital four days before his death.  Neither she nor her daughter returned to Ramallah for the burial in the Muqata’a, which was a chaotic scene. Arafat’s body was returned to Ramallah by Egyptian helicopter in a sealed coffin on 12 November 2004, and buried in the midst of a churning crowd inside the Muqata’a.  However, according to a lengthy report by Suzanne Goldenberg, published  here on 16 December 2004 by The Guardian newspaper, Sheikh Taissir Tamimi, then the chief Palestinian religious official, had been upset by the non-observance of tradition during the burial, and supervised the exhumation of Arafat’s body at 2 am.  The body, according to this account, was removed from the sealed coffin, and reburied in a shroud.    Tamimi told The Guardian: “We broke the cement and the stones, and we took the coffin out. I saw him, touched him and prayed over him, and I was able to bury him properly”.  Then, the story added, “guards returned the body to its place, a cement container that was built to line and preserve the gravesite in the hope that one day Arafat would be borne to Jerusalem following the creation of a Palestinian state”.

In any case, although poisoning was suspected, there was apparently no effort, even at the time of Arafat’s burial in Ramallah, to take samples from his hair or fingernails for later testing.

Swisher just reported, in “Killing Arafat,” that the decision not to do an autopsy was taken by the “Palestinian leadership.”

After the broadcast of “What Killed Arafat?” in July 2012, the Palestinian investigation is now more closely run by Mahmoud Abbas.  Abbas’ term as President of the Oslo-Accords-created Palestinian Authority has arguably expired [after Arafat’s death, he was elected to a four-year term in January 2005,  which was then extended for another year, until January 2010, to allow for simultaneous balloting on a new Palestine Legislative Council, but the Fatah-Hamas rift has justified indefinite extension].  Abbas continues to hold office until new elections which he himself must call — he has already been ruling by Executive Decree under emergency powers since mid-2007.   Meanwhile, like Arafat, Abbas has consolidated all three  reins of Palestinian political power, including the leadership of Fateh, the largest Palestinian political movement, as well as the Chairmanship of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization [the position which carries with it the title he assumed last year, when he signed the application for UN membership: President of the State of Palestine]…

Meanwhile, Swisher became subject to conspicuous surveillance during working visits to Ramallah, was insulted and treated with disdain by Palestinian security personnel [all shown, in “Killing Arafat”]. The antagonism between Swisher and the Palestinian leadership has only increased.

Swisher has Tweeted this telling result from an Al-Jazeera Arabic opinion poll:
Clayton Swisher @claytonswisher 13 Nov — In a poll commissioned by @kasimf viewers were asked “Do you think the PA wants to find who killed #Arafat. Of 10,438 polled, 93% answer NO.

Arafat’s remains were exhumed on 26-27 November 2012, and samples were distributed to Swiss experts and French judicial investigators – and also, at the explicit request of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, sent to Russia.

Tirawi said, in a Voice of Russia interview published here, on November 11, “We trust the Russians and that’s why we asked them to launch an independent inquiry.”

Clayton Swisher reported, however, that he was contacted by, and then met with an informant in Yerevan who claimed that Russia’s Foreign Ministry had instructed the Russian lab to say its tests were “inconclusive.”  And, they did.  The Russian lab was apparently also only given, for testing, four out of 20 forensic samples handed over by Palestinian officials in Ramallah.  In “Killing Arafat”, Swisher also showed his consultant forensic scientist David Barclay dismissing the Russian report as unreliable, because, Barclay said, the Russians tested the least-likely bone fragments, and found polonium levels lower than normal.

So far, the only part of the Russian report made public is a 15-page conclusion, posted here on Al-Jazeera’s website.

But Tirawi said in a Ramallah Muqata’a press conference on November 8 that Swiss and Russian testing had found “other substances” in the forensic samples and revealed “new facts” that are now being studied.

In the same press conference, Jordanian Dr. Abdullah Bashir revealed that Russian experts had who on a second visit to Ramallah in mid-March 2013 took for testing some of Arafat’s personal effects that remained in the Ramallah after his medical evacuation to France. These items, he said, were found to be “free of toxic or radioactive substances.”

In the same Muqata’a press conference, Tirawi waved around a document that he said was a compilation of Israeli “and even American” statements saying that Arafat should be killed. Tirawi’s statement that “Israel is the first and only suspect” grabbed media attention.

Tirawi, the former head of Palestinian General Intelligence in the West Bank who now heads the Palestinian Police Academy, in an interview in his Jericho office last year, told me that the current stage of the investigation began on October 18, 2010, in cooperation with the Yasser Arafat Foundation in Ramallah, founded by Nasser al-Qidwa. Dr. Bashir, then head of the Jordanian Medical Association, and now an elected member of the Jordanian Parliament, was asked joined the investigation at the same time. Bashir is said to have been among the physicians who have treated Arafat through the years.

One of the first acts of the renewed Palestinian investigation in late 2010 was a letter of request from Dr. Bashir to French authorities, in December, asking for Arafat’s biological samples – and also for results of toxicological testing which, Dr. Bashir noted, were conspicuously absent from the hospital report. The French reply, in January 2011, indicated that only Suha Arafat had the right to make the request, and it stated that Suha had been given the medical report [which the hospital said it then archived].

The Palestinian request to French medical authorities coincided with Suha’s mobilization. Within weeks, Suha made contact with Swisher. Clayton later wrote [in a session he hosted on Reddit, 2 December 2012, here that, “following our 2011 scoop, ‘The Palestine Papers,’ a mutual friend of Suha Arafat suggested I might want to meet the former first lady”.

[The Swiss lab report notes that Clayton Swisher contacted the University Center of Legal Medicine Lausanne/Geneva on behalf of Suha Arafat on 18 January 2012, requesting a “forensic medical exam into the death of President Yasser Arafat”.  It notes that Swisher came to the lab in Lausanne on 3 February 2012 “to deliver the medical records (including all radiological examinations) of the deceased pertaining to his stay at the Military Hospital at Percy, along with a travel bag  containing his personal effects which he had with him on admission to the hospital.  With that our investigations began on February 3, 2012″…]

Suha, as part of the Al-Jazeera investigation, submitted a request in 2012 for Arafat’s biological samples. She had already transmitted Arafat’s entire medical file, x-rays, personal possessions, even his kuffiyeh, Swisher said in “What Killed Arafat?”. But, as shown in the documentary, French military police replied in writing, informing Suha that Arafat’s biological samples “had been destroyed in 2008”, because [as Suha said when she was summarizing and translating the letter on camera, to Clayton Swisher, in “What Killed Arafat?”, “nobody asked.”

Dr. Bashir noted, in the Palestinian press conference, that French medical authorities are required to keep such samples for 10 years.

Tirawi himself was among the men who spent months at Yasser Arafat’s side under siege at the Muqata, in close and squalid quarters, as other parts of the compound were intermittently shelled and crumbled around them.

Tirawi reacted with irritation when I asked him why things were taking so long. He can only focus on Palestinians, and only on those to whom he has access – he can’t even question anyone with a Jerusalem ID card, Tirawi underlined in a burst of frustration. He said his focus is on finding out who carried out the murder. “My responsibility is to search for the criminal,” Tirawi said.  He said in the Muqata’a press conference that he’s working on finding the actual “tool” or “tools” who actually carried out the poisoning.  Palestinian guards and cooks and others who had been cooped up in the Ramallah Muqata’a with Yasser Arafat were questioned in the initial aftermath of Arafat’s death.  By now, Tirawi said, hundreds of Palestinian and non-Palestinian suspects have been questioned over the years, inside and outside of Palestine.

In mid-July 2012, soon after Al-Jazeera’s report on the discovery of Polonium-210 in Arafat’s personal effects, the Yasser Arafat Foundation published what it said was Arafat’s entire medical file on its website, here. [However, if the entire medical file is 558 pages, as the BBC reported here, then it’s not all online at the YAF website …]

This file shows that Dr. Fouad Sabatin, a Palestinian oncologist and hematologist, was called in to the Muqata’a for a consultation on October 20, 2004 – the date that Al-Jazeera said Arafat’s blood platelet count suddenly “nosedived…putting Arafat at a high risk of death from internal bleeding.” [The Yasser Arafat Foundation website, however shows that the platelet count was unstable that day, low in the morning and high in the evening, and finally “nosedived” almost a week later, which led to the unanimous recommendation of all the medical teams treating Arafat that he should be evacuated for medical treatment elsewhere — in France, as it happened.]

Dr. Sabatin, a former head of oncology at the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, told me that although he did go to the Muqata’a that day, he “didn’t have the chance to see Arafat in person” – he said he didn’t know why.

Dr. Sabatin said he’d been asked by Arafat’s physician to consult about the low platelet count that had shown up in blood tests. There are hundreds of reasons why this may happen, Dr. Sabatin said, and various causes have to be excluded before a diagnosis can be reached. Poisoning is usually the last on the list, he indicated. He recalled that the medical focus at that time seemed to be on Arafat’s immune system.

But poisoning quickly moved higher on the list of hypotheses.  On October 22 [the tenth day of Arafat’s final illness], the Palestinian medical report says, “Blood samples were taken and sent to Madame Arafat to be sent to France for viral and toxicological screening”.  It is not clear where Suha was at that time. In any case, no results of any testing of these samples appear in the file.

They were not the only biological samples from medical testing of Arafat that went missing. On 18 October, for example, the new Swiss report notes, a “gastrointestinal endoscopy showed a nonspecific gastritis. The biopsies were sent to Tunis for histopathological examination. No information could be obtained about these biopsies“… [emphasis added]. And then, there were the biological samples taken during Arafat’s final days in Paris, which were said to have been destroyed in 2008 [despite an obligation to keep them for ten years], some of which were then discovered by French detectives in 2013, but not in good enough condition for radiological testing…

Tunisian HIV expert Dr. Tawfik Abu Shabaan, who was part of the Tunisian medical team that went to Ramallah [on 23 October and then again around the 28th, apparently], told Al-Jazeera for the “Who Killed Arafat?” documentary in 2012: “The questions are not to be asked to France or Israel but to Palestinians in Ramallah: Why did they lose so much time in seeking treatment for Arafat?”   The head of the Tunisian team was neurologist Dr. Faycal Hentati, who seems to have been trusted by Suha, and who was at Percy Army Teaching Hospital in Clamart, near Paris, until Arafat’s death.

Other information from “Who Killed Arafat?”:

Two French doctors specialists in infectious diseases [Francois Bricaire, chief of infectious diseases + Jean-Charles Piette, infectious disease expert] who met with Suha in Paris in 2012 said they didn’t find “anything, anything, anything” [Suha’s words] — but told her, she said, that they couldn’t rule out poisoning: Arafat might have been poisoned, they just didn’t know.

Suha said the Egyptian doctors thought Arafat had been poisoned.  The head of the Egyptian team, Dr. Ibrahim Mustafa, told Al-Jazeera in 2012 that “the Egyptian military had ordered his silence”.  One of the Egyptian doctors who was part of the team that saw Arafat, Dr Omar Zaki, said that the team had handed their report to the head of Egyptian intelligence Omar Suleiman [who subsequently died while receiving medical treatment in the US].

Suha also indicated that Tunisian neurologist Dr. Faycal Hentati, the head of the Tunisian medical team,  had insisted Arafat was poisoned. Suha also indicated that Dr. Hentati came with them to Percy Hospital in France.  On the phone, however, Dr Hentati told Al-Jazeeras that this was not a matter for him, but for politicians.

Arafat’s long-time personal physician, Omar Dakka, who treated him during Arafat’s exile in Tunisia, then attended him in Ramallah, is now Deputy Ambassador of Palestine in Tunisia [his wife is Tunisian]… He said that everything he knew, big and small, was in the hands of the Palestinian investigation committee in Ramallah.  Dr. Dakka also said: “this is not a medical issue, it is a political one”.

Omar Dakka’s report notes that Arafat fell ill on 12 October, after a dinner “with guests” — the guests are not identified, at least not on paper.

Dr. Dakka’s report is part of the Palestinian medical file posted on the Yasser Arafat Foundation website — which mentions the existence of reports from the Egyptian, Tunisian and Jordanian teams, though they are not published.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian investigative committee headed by Tawfik Tirawi has called on the French authorities to present their awaited forensic report, after their testing of Arafat’s remains.  The Palestinian committee suggested, diplomatically, in their Muqata’a press conference on November 8 that the French may be withholding their findings due to the internal requirements of the French judicial processes [initiated at Suha’s request, upon her complaint].  On 28 August, the French court accepted the request for a murder inquiry, made in the name of Suha and her 17-year-old daughter by Arafat, Zahwa.

Tirawi stated suddenly, in the Muqata’a press conference on November 8, that “the French know the complete truth, they know all the details about the martyrdom of Yasser Arafat.”

He is not the only one to have said this. In July 2012, on the morning after the broadcast of “What Killed Arafat?’, a member of the PLO Executive Committee told me, in a Ramallah cafe, that his first reaction was: “the French know everything”. He scoffed at the report that the French said that biological samples have now been destroyed, saying: ‘The French have even kept [some of] the hair of Napoleon’…”

One of the revelations in “Killing Arafat” is that over 100 Arafat biological samples have been found, Swisher said, by police sent by French judicial authorities as part of their murder investigation. However, Swisher reported, the cells that remain were “not enough” for radiological testing.

Al-Jazeera’s “Killing Arafat” leaves out as much of the science as possible. Swisher and Suha and David Barclay all indicated that they are now absolutely 100% convinced that Arafat was poisoned by Polonium. But some experts have subsequently raised questions.

The Swiss lab itself claims that it’s findings “moderately support” the proposition that Arafat was poisoned by Polonium-210.    Clayton Swisher claims that this was choice 5 out of a scale of 6, and Al-Jazeeera then takes this and runs with it, doing a simple calculation whereby 6 =100 percent, so 5 out of 6 means there is an 83 percent chance/probability that Arafat was poisoned by Polonium-201.  This inflates the figures, because in the report, the Swiss lab explains that it was working on a verbal probability scale in which:

1 = our results give strong probability that Arafat was NOT poisoned by Polonium

2 = our results moderately support proposition that Arafat was NOT poisoned by Polonium

3 = our results slightly support the proposition that Arafat was NOT poisoned by Polonium

4 = our results slightly support the proposition that Arafat WAS poisoned by Polonium

5 = our results moderately support the proposition that Arafat WAS poisoned by Polonium

6 = our results give strong probability that Arafat WAS poisoned by Polonium.

On this scale, choice 5 does NOT seem to correspond to 83% probability, as Al-Jazeera claims, that Arafat was poisoned by Polonium.

What the Swiss report says, exactly, is: “Taking into account the analytical limitations, mostly time lapse since death and the nature and quality of the specimens, the results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with Polonium-210“.

The Swiss lab report noted that “the clinical description [of Arafat’s symptoms] is not consistent with typical acute radiation syndrom”.   But it then stated that  “the acute onset of gastrointestinal symptoms [which it noted elsewhere was “unexplained”] with the progressive deterioration of the patient’s general state is compatible with the ingestion of  a large quantity of radioactivity”.

The presence of large quantities of Lead-210 is the big mystery that emerged from the second round of testing, which was done on Arafat’s exhumed remains.  “The activities of Lead-210 in the body are higher than all references analyzed.  The observed activities of Lead-210 cannot be explained by chronic or long-term intake.  This is coherent with an intake that occurred at the time of the first symptoms”.

Then, there is the discrepancy between the lab findings in the two series of tests [2012 and 2013]: Al-Jazeera highlighted, in the July 2012 investigation “What Killed Arafat?”, that testing showed the majority of samples from Arafat’s personal effects contained “unsupported” Polonium-210 [meaning there was no Lead-210 present, as there would have happened in nature]. Swisher explained to viewers that this is the kind of the Polonium-210 produced in a nuclear reactor.

But, according to the 108-page Swiss lab report just released this month, here, Arafat’s bones contained “supported” Polonium [meaning that Lead-210 was also present, as is found in nature] – no mention of anything produced in a nuclear reactor, and not the same story as earlier.

In 2012, Professor Francois Bochud of the Swiss Institute for Radiation Physics tells Al-Jazeera that the quantity of Polonium-210 found in Arafat’s personal effects is not what’s important, but rather it’s the type of Polonium-210 found [which was “unsupported”].  In 2013, Professor Bochud says that “supported” Polonium-210, alongside Lead-210, was found in large quantites — and he says on camera that the quantities are what’s significant.

Right after the airing of “Killing Arafat”,  Bochud did a Q+A posted on the Al-Jazeera website and said: “We took great care of measuring different parts of the body and different parts of the tomb and we arrived to the conclusion that it was not possible to explain what we did measure.  The polonium that we did measure is actually the supported kind of polonium, the same kind of polonium that you would find naturally. The difference is the level; we observed a much higher level than what we were expecting to see normally…The only thing that we could tell from our measurements was the quantity of the polonium and the quantity of lead”.  This is posted here.

Al-Jazeera has downplayed this discrepancy between the test results, to the point of ignoring it. The Swiss lab report, however, contains a brief but intriguing suggestion that an unusual ratio/distribution of the two substances might be “compatible with an intake of Lead-210 that occurred at the onset of the first symptoms [October 2004].”

The Swiss lab further hypothesizes that maybe [maybe, it’s just a theory] the Lead-210 found in Arafat’s remains is masking the presence of “unsupported” Polonium-210, the kind that was found over a year earlier in testing of Arafat’s toothbrush and worn clothing.

Nature.com reported, in a review of the Swiss lab report published here, that one possible explanation is “that Arafat was given a dose of polonium-210 contaminated with lead-210”.

Chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta [@DanKaszeta ] said on Twitter: “The 108 page Swiss report is interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as in what it does”.

One thing the Swiss report didn’t do, Kaszeta said on Twitter, “is reference the huge problems with Polonium-210 cross contamination that Britain faced in the Litvinenko investigation”.

Kaszeta worked on the investigation in the Polonium poisoning of Russian defector and Putin opponent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 – Litvinenko will lose the unenviable distinction of being the first to die in this way, if Arafat’s poisoning by Polonium in 2004 is conclusively proven.

The Swiss lab noted that “The Litvinenko case is the only known case of lethal ingestion of  Polonium-210 in humans,  but it has not been reported in the scientific literature, and the known clinical features were only those available from media reports … No official documentation is available about the known case of Mr. Litvinenko at the time of this report … It is unfortunate that the scientific data about the most famous case of Alexander Litvinenko have not been released by the British courts”.

Kaszeta told me, in an email exchange, that Polonium can be found, for example, in cigarette smoke – and explained that a heavy smoker who participated, say, in the exhumation of Arafat’s remains may have inadvertently contaminated the forensic samples: “Seriously, the clothing of a chain-smoker is going to have polonium in it from tobacco residue. If you handle a few cigarette butts then handle the shovel and then the remains of Mr. Arafat, that’s plenty of cross-contamination potential as one hypothetical example”.

Kaszeta explained that “Polonium 210 is ubiquitous in nature, with widely ranging background levels. Polonium 210 occurs in nature as the result of natural decay of Uranium…Polonium 210 occurs in tobacco smoke…because tobacco plants absorb Uranium…And wherever you get naturally occurring Uranium you get Polonium; its immediate predecessor is Lead 210”.

“The data presented in the Swiss report is subject to interpretation …[and] the science can’t resolve it with clarity”, Kaszeta said on Twitter.

In an article by Kaszeta, published here, which analyzes the Swiss lab report, he wrote: “Could Mr. Arafat have been poisoned by polonium? Certainly. Is it possible that the evidence could have been tampered with? Yes. Is it possible that much of the polonium detected is from natural sources? Yes. But the passage of time and an eroded chain of custody mean that forensic science done in 2012 faces serious limitations, and we may never be in a position to know for sure”.

A nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, Paddy Regan, told Chemistry World that “If measurements had been done three years ago, the expected radiation levels if he [Arafat] had been poisoned would be hundreds of times what they are now and the Swiss team would have been in a position to make a much stronger statement”. But, Regan said, “No further radiological evidence is likely to emerge and investigators will need to follow other leads now if they are to solve the mystery”. Regan’s remarks are included in an article on the Arafat-polonium probe, posted here.

So, the mystery hasn’t been solved by science. Palestinian officials are calling for some sort of international investigation [they seem to mean “Tribunal” — echoed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 17 November, who told AFP here that “We cannot accuse Israel without holding a trial” — which even if agreed will at best take another couple of years.

The precedent is questionable, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up to investigate the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has been criticized as both politicized and ineffective.

It is disappointing  that after the exhumation of Arafat’s body, and a nearly one-year wait for the results of forensic testing, there is still no clear, definitive answer to the questions: Was Arafat poisoned by polonium-210?  Was there another toxic substance  involved in Arafat’s death?

So, Tirawi’s mission of finding “Who did it?” may be the only way to take this forward.

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