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Yasser Arafat's body to be exhumed as cause of death is sought

Many Palestinians believe he was poisoned by Israel in 2004. Forensic experts will see whether tissue samples match July tests that found radioactive traces on his belongings.

November 24, 2012|By Maher Abukhater and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Palestinian Authority officials announced they will exhume the body of former leader Yasser Arafat to determine the cause of his death.
Palestinian Authority officials announced they will exhume the body of… (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority announced Saturday that it would exhume the body of Yasser Arafat within days in a bid to determine the cause of his death eight years ago. Many Palestinians believe he was poisoned by Israel.

Arafat, 75, died in a French military hospital near Paris on Nov. 11, 2004, after his health deteriorated suddenly during an Israeli military siege of his Ramallah headquarters.

French hospital reports attributed his death to a massive brain hemorrhage, but gave no details on what caused a related blood condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation, fueling Palestinian suspicion of an Israeli role.

The body will be exhumed Tuesday in Ramallah, Palestinian officials told reporters. Swiss, French and Russian forensic experts will analyze tissue samples to see whether they match July tests by the Swiss Institute for Radiation Physics. Those tests found traces of radioactive polonium on Arafat's toothbrush, fur hat and other belongings he used in his final days.

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Journalists will be kept away from the concrete-encased grave in Arafat's former Ramallah compound, which has been obscured by blue industrial sheeting since digging started in mid-November. The body will be immediately reburied at a depth of 12 feet.

Testing will be done in Switzerland, France and Russia, officials said, with the results expected in a few months.

No autopsy was done at the time of Arafat's death, at the request of his wife, Suha. But she later filed a lawsuit, spurring a French investigation. French medical teams ruled out poisoning, and an eight-year Palestinian investigation found no conclusive evidence of foul play.

Many here have already made up their minds.

"Regardless of the results of the tests, whether they will be positive or negative, we are convinced and have all the evidence to prove that Israel has assassinated him," Tawfik Tirawi, head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat's death, said at the news conference Saturday in the Ramallah offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But Mahdi Abdul Hadi, an analyst with the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said Palestinians were more concerned about the possibility that collaborators helped Israel kill Arafat.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinians were free to take all the samples they wanted.

"We have nothing to fear," he said. "All the accusations against Israel are completely ridiculous and not based on the slightest bit of evidence."

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Amir Rapaport, publisher and editor of Israel Defense magazine, said it was possible but unlikely that Israel had a role. Although Israel's prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, expressed "satisfaction" on learning of Arafat's death, Rapaport said he had been privy to the debate among top Israeli government and military leaders, and this idea wasn't part of the discussion.

Furthermore, he said, the way Arafat died — an initial deterioration, temporary improvement, then a final collapse — bears none of the hallmarks of Israeli assassinations, which tend to be quick and decisive. "It's too complicated," he said.

Conspiracy theories are rife in countries around Israel's periphery, said Boaz Ganor, executive director of Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

"The fact that most Palestinians believe Israel was responsible, I'm not surprised," Ganor said. "They probably believe Israel is responsible for global warming as well."

The French team recently has sought to question Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Palestinian officials, who requested anonymity, but they were rejected.

"We will not allow any action that would infringe on our sovereignty," Tirawi said, an apparent reference to the French request. Tirawi said reports that Arafat's corpse had been damaged by tons of concrete poured over the grave site at the 2004 burial were false.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Magnier reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah.

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