Eight years after Yasir Arafat’s mysterious death in a military hospital outside Paris, authorities in France have opened an assassination inquiry to determine what killed the controversial Palestinian leader. The inquiry, which was opened on Tuesday, comes after a complaint filed last month by Arafat’s widow, Suha, and the couple’s daughter, Zawra, who suspect the former Palestinian Authority president died of radiation poisoning.
The investigation follows a summer of suspicion after an Al-Jazeera documentary on Arafat raised new questions about his demise. The feature, which aired in July, revealed new findings purportedly pointing to poisoning by polonium-210, the same radioactive agent found to have killed the Russian dissident and former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the film, the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne examined some of Arafat’s personal items and found abnormal quantities of the naturally occurring but highly rare radioactive material.
The findings led to Palestinian calls for an international inquiry into Arafat’s death. This month, the Palestinian Authority invited Swiss researchers to travel to the West Bank to examine Arafat’s remains. The scientists explained that any testing conducted on Arafat’s exhumed body would have to be performed quickly, owing to the particularly short half-life of polonium-210. Last Friday, Suha Arafat’s lawyers asked that the testing nevertheless wait for French authorities to open the inquiry, which was then seen as imminent (she would like to see French investigators accompany the Swiss experts).
Earlier on Tuesday, a French website posted a document that shed light on French military doctors’ apparently thorough attempts to understand the root cause of their star patient’s diagnosed thrombocytopenia, a reduction in blood platelets, in 2004. The medical report published by Slate.fr, the French iteration of the American website, is dated Nov. 14, 2004, 11 days after Arafat fell into a coma and three days after his death. The report paints a picture of a 75-year-old man “without patent preexisting conditions” admitted after his transfer from a Tunisian hospital, who was said to have fallen ill with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain “four hours after the evening meal” on Oct. 6, 2004, in Ramallah.
Slate.fr also refers to another confidential document filed under a name other than Arafat’s, which the website says confirms testing by military doctors to rule out radiation poisoning —“cobalt 60, chrome 51, cesium 134 and 144, manganese 54, rhodium 106, zinc 65”—although, significantly, without testing specifically for polonium-210. “Still,” the website argues, “given the characteristics specific to polonium, it is very unlikely that the French specialists could have, in 2004, not identified its urinary presence if it was still present eight years later in his personal items, as Lausanne is believed to have identified.” (Indeed, Slate.fr further cites a Paris rheumatologist positing that Arafat’s symptoms were more compatible with poisoning by certain types of mushroom than by polonium.)
Upon hearing the news on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders praised French authorities for opening the inquiry. “We welcome this decision,” said Saeb Erakat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with Agence France Presse.
He added that Abbas “has officially asked French President François Hollande to help us to investigate the circumstances of the martyrdom of late President Arafat.” As Le Monde points out, a month after Arafat’s death, 72 percent of Palestinians believed that the Palestinian president had been poisoned; and nearly two-thirds of those who believed as much held Israel accountable. Israel, meanwhile, has always denied involvement.
On Tuesday, reacting to news of the French inquiry, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Associated Press: “It’s not really our concern because the complaint is not lodged against Israel. If there is an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on this matter.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Slate.fr published a “leaked” medical report, implying that the French website was the first to acquire it. In reality this document had been made public by Al-Jazeera two months prior. Slate.fr has since published the following correction:
"We present our apologies to our readers as we committed an error in too quickly evoking a 'revelation' in Yasser Arafat's medical dossier. The dossier, which had been transmitted to the widow and a beneficiary of the Palestinian leader by the French government in November 2004 (the decision to transmit this item was at the time officially announced), was rendered public by the Qatari network Al-Jazeera two months ago on its English language website. The link to that inquiry is found here:. Slate[.fr]'s contribution resides in the medical investigation led using those elements of the dossier (which we obtained from other sources), and in light of new elements emanating from the medical and scientific team in Lausanne and taking into account the anatomic elements missing from the French dossier."