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Medical Experts Still Unsure What Spurred Arafat's Decline

The assessment appears to dispel theories of poisoning or AIDS, but does not explain why the Palestinian leader suddenly fell ill.

September 09, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A stroke caused the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat last year, but French doctors were unable to determine the underlying cause of health problems that sent him into a rapid decline, according to a summary of the medical report.

The inconclusive findings of the medical assessment, whose contents were first reported in detail Thursday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the New York Times, may add to the intrigue surrounding Arafat's deterioration and death.

The 75-year-old Palestinian leader died in a French hospital Nov. 11 after falling ill at his battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Many Palestinian leaders believe Arafat was poisoned by Israel, although the New York Times said its review of the medical report indicated that poisoning was "highly unlikely." The newspaper said analyses of the documents done on its behalf by American and Israeli medical experts also dispelled theories that Arafat died of AIDS.

Israel has steadfastly denied any role in his death and did so again Thursday.

Arafat's doctors conducted extensive tests but were unable to pinpoint the source of an infection that caused a bleeding disorder that triggered the stroke, the newspaper reported. One possibility, it said, was food contaminated with bacteria.

Arafat became ill after eating dinner Oct. 12 and initially was diagnosed as having the flu. But his condition worsened. He was treated for low blood platelet counts, though doctors ruled out leukemia. Arafat deteriorated further and slipped into a coma after being transferred to a French military hospital outside Paris, where he died days later.

The lack of concrete answers at the time, contradictory updates from Palestinian authorities and the refusal of Arafat's wife, Suha, to allow top officials to see the dying Palestinian leader contributed to a swirl of speculation and skepticism about his condition. Suha Arafat and Palestinian officials did not specify the cause of death, and the medical records previously had not been made public.

The Haaretz report, based on excerpts from a book by two Israeli journalists who obtained the records, cited experts who found evidence both for and against theories that Arafat was poisoned or had AIDS. The journalists, Avi Isacharoff and Amos Harel, said infection was also a possible cause.

Their account quoted Arafat's personal physician, Ashraf Kurdi, as saying that he knew French doctors had found evidence of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, though the medical report makes no mention of AIDS or of any tests having been performed to detect it. Specialists found it strange the records did not mention an AIDS test, given the suspicions.

Kurdi said he believed Arafat was injected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, to disguise the effects of poisoning, according to the account in Haaretz. Kurdi, who was not with Arafat in Paris, did not say why he believed French doctors had discovered evidence of AIDS.

The medical report's summary lists various health factors complicating Arafat's decline: digestive troubles, a blood syndrome known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, a type of jaundice, a neurological condition causing occasional stupor, and the coma.

But the summary said that "in spite of reports by experts in several fields and examinations' results, it was not possible to agree on a specific disease framework which would explain the combination of the syndromes."

The summary was provided to the Los Angeles Times by the Israeli journalists, who have added the Arafat medical material to an updated edition of their book, "The Seventh War: How We Won and Why We Lost the War With the Palestinians."

In an interview Thursday, Isacharoff said lingering questions would probably add to the intrigue surrounding Arafat's death, which ended a key epoch of Palestinian history and set the stage for a possible improvement in relations with Israel.

"It only increases the mystery around the death of Arafat; there's no real conclusion," Isacharoff said. He said it was possible Suha Arafat held additional documents that could shed light on her husband's demise.

Isacharoff is a reporter with Israel Radio; Harel is a military correspondent with Haaretz.

Questions about the circumstances of Arafat's death prompted the Palestinian Authority months ago to order an investigation. That inquiry, still incomplete, is based on the hospital records provided by Arafat's nephew, Nasser Kidwa, who is now the Palestinian foreign minister, and on reviews by medical experts.

Palestinian officials were critical of renewed theorizing over Arafat's death. Negotiator Saeb Erekat called the possible scenarios laid out in the Israeli account "baseless."

"I hope people will stop targeting President Arafat and show sensitivity to his people and family," Erekat said.

Times special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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