Yasser Arafat Autopsy: Why the Body is Being Exhumed After All These Years

The death of the late Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat still remains a mystery. This cold case has been encircled with conspiracy theories for almost a decade. 

At the time of his death, French medical experts declared that Arafat's sudden health deterioration was the result of a brain hemorrhage. At the request of Arafat’s widow, no official autopsy was performed, leaving a void surrounding his death. So why wait eight years later to investigate? It can be considered to be politically motivated, as the results could be used to target individuals, factions, or regimes, responsible for the death of a man who was a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

In July, Al-Jazeera directed and released a documentary investigating the suspicious details surrounding Arafat’s death. Swiss radiation physicists discovered samples of high levels of radioactive polonium-210. This rare isotope can be used as poison, and has been used in past assassinations. Only countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as Israel and Russia, have access to this chemical element in order to perform nuclear testing. Elevated levels of polonium were found on the leader’s remaining personal effects, offering more evidence that his death was possibly a covert assassination. 

Coincidentally, eight years is also the limit of time that scientists claim any traces of the unsupported polonium can be detected and used as a reliable sample. Natural polonium replenishes itself after decaying, while unsupported polonium does not, decaying approximately every four and a half months. Some say that an investigation now might not even be worth it at this point. It could be too late to collect samples and perform accurate testing and only bring controversy. But, others are determined to gain closure and prove their initial beliefs that Arafat really was murdered.

After months of legal processes in the French judiciary, French authorities have officially launched a murder probe. A team of scientists, forensic experts, and investigators from Switzerland, France, and Russia, spent Tuesday exhuming the leader’s corpse in Ramallah.  Each country has obtained samples from Arafat’s remains and testing will be performed separately. 

If Arafat’s death was an actual homicide, it will be at minimum March or April of 2013 before any information is to be expected. If the tests confirm suspicions that he was poisoned, the Palestinians along with French legal experts intend to proceed to the International Criminal Court

Even if this politically-charged autopsy confirms that Arafat’s death was intended, we still may never know what actually happened. Some might accuse rival Palestinian factions for being responsible, but the Palestinian Authority places heavy suspicions on Israel. The Israeli government refuses to comment on the situation, but they have formerly denied any involvement in Arafat’s death. If Israel did play a role, this will likely spark more unrest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

For the sake of peace, hopefully nothing will be discovered. If Arafat was indeed assassinated, it could be interpreted as an act of war. But for the sake of truth, hard scientific fact cannot be denied, and someone may have to answer to the long overdue question of what really happened to the Palestinian leader.

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Jamilah Al-Harake

Jamilah, an American-Lebanese originally from United States, lives in the Middle East. She received a B.S. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, studied professional development at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and received a M.A. in International Affairs from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon. She is an avid activist and writer, and has worked with the Carnegie Middle East Center, ILO, and UNHCR on numerous research projects in the region. She shares an unique interest in Lebanese, Syrian, and Iranian politics. She is educated and proficient in English, French, and Arabic.

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