The Exhumation of Arafat

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Amid the pomp of the UN General Assembly vote granting Palestine non-member observer status, a forensic investigative committee is trying to determine the cause of the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Felled by a sudden deterioration of his health, Arafat died in a French hospital in 2004. Since then, several theories have been advanced to explain the cause of Arafat’s mysterious illness, but some hope that an analysis of the Palestinian leader’s body might begin to unravel the mystery. Others hope it might even point to the culprit, although not everyone is convinced of foul play.

In the days preceding the exhumation of Arafat’s body, a news report published by the Palestinian news service WAFA cited Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of the investigative committee, in a press conference in Ramallah who “pointed out that no media will be granted access to the grave when Swiss, French and Russian experts take samples from the remains. A military ceremony will be held when returning Arafat’s remains to the grave, he said. He said there is no exact time when the results of the tests will be issued, stressing that according to the Swiss team the radioactive material, polonium, found earlier on Arafat’s cloths, remains as the cause for Arafat’s poisoning. Tirawai also added that ‘we are positive that Israel had assassinated Arafat.’”

Tirawi’s declaration of Israel’s guilt in the death of Arafat — even before any tests are completed —  seems to strengthen the argument of some in Israel, who feel that it is impossible for the investigation to be unbiased. It is not surprising, then, that the Jerusalem Post staff asks: “Can we really rely on an impartial forensic investigation now? Too much political capital appears to have been invested in this affair to instill much confidence that everything will be strictly on the up and up….Apparently tall tales of a plot to murder Arafat are too good to pass up in a setting where fact and fiction are intrinsically indistinguishable. Since no one would anyhow believe Arafat died a natural death, better just blame all foul-play on Israel. “

Calling the investigation “a necessary test,” The Peninsula editorial agrees that Israel seems to have already lost the battle of public opinion, while cautioning that: “there are doubts about what the inquiry can unearth. It may not give answers to all the questions which Palestinians will ask, but can certainly give broad hints which will help to arrive at conclusions. If the tests prove that Arafat was indeed poisoned, Palestinians and the rest of the world wouldn’t have to dig deeper to find out the perpetrator behind the crime. And it’s unlikely that the French authorities, despite their best results, will be able to apprehend the culprits even after collecting sufficient proof.”

No such doubts exist from the point of view of another regional daily, The National, which, in an editorial, argues in favor of opening the investigation and pursuing it until the end, if only to provide closure for the Palestinian people: “There has been plenty of unsubstantiated speculation about the causes of Arafat’s death in Paris, ranging from a stroke to cancer to cirrhosis….The uncertainty and suspicion is the most compelling argument to go forward with this investigation. Whether or not Arafat is viewed as a resistance hero, there must be closure about his death, so this mystery doesn’t dog subsequent generations of Palestinian leaders. Regardless of the results of the autopsy, it is highly unlikely that it will provide all of the answers, but they could compel further investigation. Palestinian Authority leaders, with international assistance, need to follow this case to the end.”

Still, there are others who, while sympathetic to the desires of many to know what exactly caused Arafat’s sudden illness, see very little to gain from the investigation. As an op-ed on Gulf Today puts it, to answer some questions only to raise new ones: “Hopefully, the results will put to rest eight years of questions about Arafat’s rapid health deterioration and subsequent death….The Israelis had an opportunity to interfere with food deliveries which passed through their checkpoints during the siege. But they had no way of knowing who would be eating what and the fact that there was no mass poisoning inside Arafat’s headquarters would mean that Arafat’s food was contaminated by someone with direct access to it….Many Palestinians still clamor for answers, but many disagree with reopening the debate. Whatever the outcome of the tests, it is likely to answer some questions but raise new ones.”

Cecile Feuillatre, the author of an Arab News column, also wonders whether the investigation will produce any real results: “Some experts have also questioned if anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short half-life and dissipates quicker than some other radioactive substances….The late leader’s nephew Nasser Al-Qidwa — one of the most vocal critics of the entire process — said he found the whole process disturbing and akin to ‘desecration.’ ‘No good can come out of this at all,’ Qidwa said in an interview. ‘It does no good to the Palestinians.’ Qidwa argued that most people in the West Bank already believed that Arafat had been poisoned and did not require any further proof. ‘I do not understand this exhumation,’ he lamented. ‘The French took all the samples they wanted (at the time of his death).’”

Finally, a Khaleej Times editorial raises the question of whether Arafat’s death — be it due to natural causes or otherwise — ‘set history on a detour’: “[M]any are wondering what purpose will this investigation really serve?  While it will once and for all clear the air regarding Arafat’s death, which has been surrounded by conflicting hypotheses, it won’t push analysts to conjecture about all the ‘what-ifs’….when Arafat suddenly fell ill in 2004, he was under house arrest; at that time relations between the Israeli authorities and the PLO had actually deteriorated and the peace process was experiencing an all-time low.  Even if his death was a case of murder executed by the Israeli authorities, it is doubtful that its untimeliness drastically changed the trajectory of future events. The passing away of the Palestinian leader most probably did not set history off on a detour.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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