A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

AJE Claims Arafat Showed High Levels of Polonium at Time of Death

Allegations that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned have always seemed far-fetched, the usual Middle Eastern conspiracy theories, despite the fact that his doctors never offered a cause of death and there was no autopsy after his death in 2004. Rumors that he died of AIDS, liver disease, etc. were rampant but unproven.

Al Jazeera English is claiming today to have conducted a nine-month investigation and is reporting that a radiation laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, has found high levels of radioactive polonium in Arafat's personal affects (clothing, toothbrush, etc.), suggesting his body contained the radioactive substance in his last days. Polonium was responsible for the death of exiled Russian former spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006. According to the AJE report (a fuller hour-long report will reportedly be aired soon):
Polonium is present in the atmosphere, but the natural levels that accumulate on surfaces barely register, and the element disappears quickly. Polonium-210, the isotope found on Arafat's belongings, has a half-life of 138 days, meaning that half of the substance decays roughly every four-and-a-half months. “Even in case of a poisoning similar to the Litvinenko case, only traces of the order of a few [millibecquerels] were expected to be found in [the] year 2012,” the institute noted in its report to Al Jazeera.
But Arafat’s personal effects, particularly those with bodily fluids on them, registered much higher levels of the element. His toothbrushes had polonium levels of 54mBq; the urine stain on his underwear, 180mBq. (Another man’s pair of underwear, used as a control, measured just 6.7mBq.)
Further tests, conducted over a three-month period from March until June, concluded that most of that polonium – between 60 and 80 per cent, depending on the sample – was “unsupported,” meaning that it did not come from natural sources.

I have no idea if Arafat was really poisoned, but this does at least suggest an agent that was used, which  previous conspiracy theories have not.  Palestinians will of course assume Israel was behind any poisoning plot. Whether it is possible to confirm any of this at this late date is of course questionable. And one must wonder why, given the amount of questions at the time, this was not discovered (or revealed) at the time of his death?

Full disclosure: Al Jazeera English reporter Clayton Swisher, who worked on this story for the past nine months, is a former colleague of mine at the Middle East Institute.

The Al Jaseera English report (again, a longer report will be aired later today):

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