Yasser Arafat’s body exhumed: Poison probe ahead of UN vote

The remains of Yasser Arafat have been exhumed as experts try to ascertain whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned. The probe comes less than a week after the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel and precedes a UN vote on Palestine’s nation status.

Traces of a radioactive substance were found of Arafat’s effects in July, adding impetus to the theory he was murdered.

The procedure began at 05:00 GMT and was carried out in the presence of French, Russian and Swiss experts to verify its validity. Scientists took samples of Arafat’s bones, which they will take back to their respective countries. There they will be analyzed for traces of radioactive material and other lethal substances.

Experts have said a full investigation into the causes of Arafat’s death could take several months.

Journalists were prohibited from attending the exhumation “because [of the] sanctity of the symbol and the sanctity of this event,” a former Palestinian intelligence chief told AFP.

A probe was launched back in August following a documentary by Qatar-backed channel Al Jazeera. The documentary claimed that traces of plutonium-210 were discovered on items belonging to the iconic figure.

Scientists from the Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics at Lausanne University found “significant traces” that exceeded normal levels by 10 times in some samples. However, investigators conceded that Arafat’s symptoms according to his medical records were not consistent with radioactive poisoning.

Arafat, who was made the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, became ill in October 2004. His condition worsened so severely over the subsequent two weeks that he was transferred to a French military hospital in Paris, where he died in the November.

The former leader’s medical records describe the cause of his death as a stroke brought on by a blood disorder of unknown origin, but rumors are rife in Palestine that Arafat was poisoned by Israel. The Israeli government has repeatedly denied these accusations.

Palestinian students hold posters of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a memorial service for him at a school near the West Bank city of Nablus on November 27, 2012. (AFP Photo / Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
Palestinian students hold posters of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a memorial service for him at a school near the West Bank city of Nablus on November 27, 2012. (AFP Photo / Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Qatar ‘meddling in region’

One of the possible answers to why Al Jazeera has been so actively covering the issue is Qatar’s interest in what is happening in the region, independent journalist James Corbett told RT. The emir of Qatar visited Palestine shortly before the recent conflict, offering money and arms, Corbett said.

RT’s Paula Slier pointed out that there’s “a lot of vested interest” in terms of who and what was behind the death of Yasser Arafat. She reminded that Al Jazeera, who is “almost obsessed with stories about Israeli assassinations,” is owned by the Qatar government. “What we’ve witnessed for some time is that Qatar is…desperate to see some kind of change within the Palestinian leadership. For some time Qatar has also wanted to see the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas step down and to see more radical elements come to power not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank.”

Even if the investigation proves Arafat was poisoned, it’s highly unlikely it will result in any real political fallout, James Corbett argued.

“The vast majority of Palestinians have always assumed that Israel assassinated Arafat. If this goes on to confirm that, it kind of throws in the face of the Palestinians their helplessness in a situation like this. And this was underscored actually just earlier this month when Israel came out and for the first time military censors allowed the information about the killing of Fatah’s co-founder, Khalil al-Wazir,” Corbett said.

Earlier this month Israel admitted the assassination of Khalil al-Wazir in 1988, after some 25 years of secrecy over the killing.

“So it’s now openly on record admitted that the co-founder of Fatah was killed by the Israelis, but again nothing has resulted politically, and it’s unclear whether or not Palestine will have any ability to bring any sort of proceedings against Israel if it is found that Arafat was poisoned,” Corbett told RT.

Watch the full interview with independent journalist James Corbett

­However political analyst Omar Nashabe believes that Qatar might want to push the investigation forward in order to create “schisms and differences” within Mahmoud Abbas’s administration.

“If there was poisoning of President Arafat – someone must have put the poison in his food, or must have put the poison on his skin – and to do that it must be someone from his close entourage. To open this investigation would create disputes within the Fatah movement and those close to Yasser Arafat who are now the people close to Mahmoud Abbas,” he told RT.

Watch the full interview with political analyst Omar Nashabe


Simmering tensions

The exhumation of Arafat’s remains coincides with the crucial UN General Assembly vote on Palestine’s state bid on Thursday.

The Palestinian Authority seeks to upgrade its current status to that of a "non-member observer state." The issue of the Palestinian bid for statehood is a highly contentious issue amongst the international community with Israeli rhetoric heralding a dramatic reaction should the UN vote in favor of the Palestinian Authority.

The US has also condemned the move, branding it as counter-productive for the two-nation peace negotiations and a potential obstacle to American aid for Gaza.

"We have obviously been very clear that we do not think this step is going to bring the Palestinian people any closer to a state; that we think it is a mistake; that we oppose it; that we will oppose it," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland in a press conference. She added it would be a step backwards in terms of the larger goal.

Relations between Israel and Gaza currently stand on a knife-edge less than a week after the cessation of violence between the two antagonistic parties. Israel’s eight-day Pillar of Defense campaign on Gaza killed 168 Palestinians, while Gazan rocket fire left five Israelis dead.