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Yasser Arafat’s death: commemoration and investigations

By Julie C. - November 13, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Yasser Arafat]

Photo by Julie C.

Palestinians commemorated this week the 9th anniversary of the death of former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. This year’s commemorations come in the midst of the release of a report compiled by a team of Swiss doctors on the cause of the death deceased president. Owing to the discovery of an abnormal rate of polonium 210 in his body, the Swiss team’s investigation concludes a possible death by poisoning. 

During a subsequent press conference held on 8 November, Tawfik Tirawi, the man heading the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat’s death, placed the blame solely on Israel

Thousands to commemorate Yasser Arafat’s death

About a thousand Palestinians gathered on 11 November in Ramallah to commemorate Yasser Arafat's death. A procession of boy and girl scouts, members of the Fatah youth association and young musicians marched from Al-Manara Square, in the center of the city, to al-Muqata’a, the Palestinian Authority headquarters. Various Palestinian representatives and several foreign delegations then dropped off flowers on Yasser Arafat’s tomb. 

Other commemorations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were confronted with the violence by the Israeli military and Border Police. In Silwan, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the commemoration was violently brought to an end: “The forces presented an order signed by the Israeli minister of interior banning the commemoration (…). Clashes broke near the club between Israeli forces and young Palestinian men”, reports Maan News Agency. One person was injured “by shrapnel.” The media agency also reported clashes occurring in Hebron, at the entrance of Shuhada Street (a street in the old city closed to Palestinians to the presence of Israeli settlements) when young Palestinians hurled stones at the soldiers who responded with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

News about Yasser Arafat's poisoning come as no surprise in Palestine

Earlier on Friday 8 November, the Palestinian Authority reported in a press conference held in the Presidential palace, the results of a Swiss scientific team’s examination of samples taken after Arafat’s exhumation in Ramallah in November 25, 2012. The team discovered the presence of polonium 210 at about 18 to 36 times its normal level, according to Dr. Barclay, a UK forensic specialist interviewed by Al-Jazeera in the recently released documentary, “Who Killed Arafat?” Polonium is a radioactive element which, when injected at a high dose, induces organ failures and possibly death. It was famously used in the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident. In the case of Yasser Arafat, the Swiss team concluded that its findings would “moderately support” the theory that the former leader died of poisoning. 

Two other teams from Russia and France were also working in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority in order to uncover the truth about Yasser Arafat’s death. The Russian team was brought on the case at the request of the Palestinian Authority in 2012 for its expertise on the topic. Its results, presented on November 2nd this year, proved inconclusive. However, Al-Jazeera reports that the Russian team examined only 4 of the 20 samples. More testing could therefore be awaited. The French investigation, which was mandated by the French court after Arafat’s wife, Suha Arafat, opened a criminal case into the death of her husband back in 2012, will not disclose its results until the court case is concluded

Dr. Abdallah al-Bashir, from the medical committee created by the Yasser Arafat foundation with the purpose of uncovering the medical reasons behind the former leader’s death, explained during the press conference that Yasser Arafat was a healthy 75 years old man at the time of his death, with no past diseases, drinking or smoking habits. It had always been suspected that the former leader had been poisoned, although the culpable substance in question was unknown until the most recent discovery by the Swiss. 

According to a report by Al-Jazeera America, “Doctors at Percy hospital [in France, where Yasser Arafat was brought in October 2004 before his death] did not conduct an autopsy, announce the cause of death or release his medical records, which heightened speculation about the cause of his rapid demise.” It was not until the release in July 2012 of an investigation conducted by Al-Jazeera the previous year, that the case was re-opened and that a murder investigation began in France, which led to the exhumation of Arafat’s remains in November 2012. 

“Who stands behind the assassination of Arafat?” asked Tawfiq Tirawi, during the PA’s 8 November press conference at the Muqata’a compound in Ramallah. “Who has the technical material? We say that Israel is the prime and only suspect in the case of Yasser Arafat's assassination, and we will continue to carry out a thorough investigation to find out and confirm all the details and all elements of the case."

Israel’s responsibility in Yasser Arafat's death seems to come as no surprise for the Palestinians: “Israel killed Yasser Arafat, they put the poison in his food. But the Israeli will never tell us that (…). We didn't need the results to know,” said an anonymous member of the Fatah youth organization in an interview with the Palestine Monitor during this week's commemoration.

The Israeli Authorities plead 'not-guilty” despite various attempts of assassination

Israeli authorities were quick to respond to the accusations brought by the Palestinian Authority.

“We never made a decision to harm him physically. In my opinion, this is a tempest in a tea cup. But even if it was (poisoning), it certainly was not Israel. Maybe someone else inside had thoughts or an interest to do it,” Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, former Foreign Minister and member of Israel’s security cabinet in 2004, told Israel Radio in an interview published by Haaretz.

On the Israel Army’s radio, Yuval Steinitz, Israel's intelligence minister, also declared: "This thing (Arafat's poisoning) is apparently joining the never-ending column of bogus allegations against the State of Israel." According to Raanan Gissin, a former Israeli government spokesman, “It was a government decision not to touch Arafat at all.”

“By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly,reported Jeffrey Goldberg in the New Yorker in 2001. Quoting Ariel Sharon, Goldberg wrote, “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort—and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader—to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.” 

Among the most famous attempts on Yasser Arafat's life was the bombing of his headquarters in Tunisia in 1985 by Israeli airplanes. 73 people were killed in the attack. Another attempt was made in 1982, when Israeli bombed of the building in which he was thought to have taken shelter in Beirut at the time. His Ramallah compound was also targeted with rockets in 2001.

 “After 3 years of silent work, we are closer to the truth. This is a commitment and a promise to our people and to the nation and to all the Palestinian martyrs who fell before,” declared Tawfiq Tirawi, in reference to the ongoing investigations. 

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