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Opening Yasser Arafat's tomb

As scientists, judges and investigators gather in Ramallah, a big surprise is how the PA embraced the probe.
Last modified: 23 Nov 2012 22:12

On Tuesday, a crowd of scientists, judges and investigators will gather in Ramallah to witness the opening of Yasser Arafat's tomb.

It's hard to image this has resulted from an investigation Al Jazeera initiated less than a year ago.

But even more difficult to fathom is how dangerously close Arafat's case came to never achieving a breakthrough.

Until Al Jazeera's July 3, 2012, broadcast of "What Killed Arafat?", historians had chalked the late Palestinian leader's death up to poor health, unknown disease, or even HIV - despite the fact several tests were performed all yielding negative results.

Theories of poisoning existed, but were ascribed to the category of folks who put aluminum foil on their heads to deflect UFO radar.

But there is no denying hard scientific evidence. It is a fact that Arafat was never tested in 2004 for the highly toxic radionuclide Polonium 210, an alpha-emitting particle that eluded French hospital tests for gamma radiation only.

It is also a fact that significant levels of reactor-made PO210 were recently discovered in Arafat's biological stains and last personal effects, all kept inside a simple green gym bag left undisturbed for the past eight years.

That's even more impressive owing to polonium's decay by 50 per cent every 138.4 days.

More than 20 half-lives had passed when the Swiss made their tests; that reactor-made polonium was present at all spoke volumes of the magnitude of the original contamination.

Evidence locker

Had the tests for polonium been made one year earlier, the Swiss told me, the possibility to conclusively rule in favour of poisoning by polonium would have been stark.

By contrast, had Al Jazeera waited one year to request the tests from such tiny samples [small, dried blood, urine, and saliva stains], the possibility of finding any unnatural polonium left by 2013 would be nil.

Today that bag is in an evidence locker under the instruction of Court of Nanterres in France.

Mrs Arafat and her lawyers had approached the bench at the end of July, requesting they investigate a claim against "X" for the murder of her late husband.

The court accepted jurisdiction, three independent French judges were appointed, and already they've begun retrieving medical records, evidence, and have interviewed their first witness, Suha Arafat.

An even bigger surprise has been how the Palestinian Authority (PA) embraced the investigation after eight years of feigning interest in the case.

This is in great part because of the tenacity and grit of General Tawfik Tirawi, the former head of Palestinian mukhabarat and close Arafat confidant.

Underfunded efforts

Until our broadcast, Tirawi had presided over a sinecure entitled "President of the Commission to Investigate the Death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat".

That commission's efforts had been both underfunded and stillborn for most of its eight-year existence.

General Tirawi only took it over in 2010, and admits Al Jazeera breathed new life into its work. 

Tirawi was with Arafat under siege in the presidential compound known as the Muqata.

Like Arafat, he was a man wanted by Israel.

Israel also openly threatened to assassinate him for allegedly supporting the second Intifada violence.

In that vein, Tirawi is in many ways more suited to be a witness in the case than the man chairing the PA's investigative committee.

But with the newly discovered evidence of possible polonium poisoning, Tirawi's positioning within the PA's dominate Fatah, of which he is a central committee member, proved useful.

It enabled him to swing seniority and influence among others needed to marshal support.

Not without drama

All of it was required as the PA's internal deliberations over whether to consent to France's exhumation request was not without drama.

Emotions among the PA's senior leadership ran high in the intervening five months.

Even though Suha Arafat had called for the exhumation in our film, which her daughter Zahwa supports, the rest of the family seemed decisively against.

Arafat's sister unsuccessfully appealed it in a recent letter to the attorney general.

On November 10, Nasser Kidwa derided those supporting the procedure as "defiling" Arafat's grave.

Many other PA figures erstwhile attacked the wisdom of following something that originated from Al Jazeera.

In addition to disliking the timing of our broadcast, official PA critics have also pointed to Al Jazeera's extensive coverage of Abbas's controversial statements on abandoning the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

The same crowd goes further to claim the visit to Gaza by the emir of Qatar - who finances Al Jazeera - was a similarly calculated attempt to drive the knife in the heart of Fatah while bolstering its rival Hamas. 

The result of these internal emotions and debates have produced a contradiction typical among those following PA decision-making.

Public conviction

On the one hand, an outward public conviction to carry out the exhumation - as most of the Palestinian public greatly supports an investigation into Arafat's death and are angered it wasn't done years early. But it has also resulted in the PA overcompensating and hedging its experts by hastily expanding the scientists responsible for performing the tests.

From 20 French authorities, including Judges, clerks, scientists, police, and diplomats, the PA also invited the same Swiss experts used by Al Jazeera.

While that seemed a logical way to ensure the integrity of the toxicology screening, just two weeks ago, following his meeting with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in Jordan, President Abbas made a surprise announcement that other experts have been invited from Russia, a country with notable polonium expertise but questionable trust among the Arab world.

Perhaps more bizarre are reports I've confirmed with General Tirawi that experts from Egypt will also join the mix, in spite of their non-nuclear know-how.

None of that appears to matter, and in many ways, those gathering to watch the digging on Monday will probably represent the scientific equivalent of the bar scene from Star Wars.

There has been zero co-ordination among them - French, Swiss, Russian, or Egyptian - about how to do the exhumation, and what common procedure to follow.

It's not ideal, but befitting of the eclectic group that followed Arafat throughout his life.

Different labs involved

On the plus side, a conspiracy to hide or bury any scientific results will be unmanageable with so many different labs involved.

On the negative side, any lab could cast doubt on the others by making scurrilous claims about the others and their conclusions.

To that end, it's interesting the French judges have appointed three scientists - a toxicologist, a legal medicine generalist, and a clinical pathologist - who have zero background in the field of radiophysics.

None of the French "experts" have any demonstrated experience in testing human remains for Polonium 210.

One would think they'd bring their A-team rather than just generalists. And though the French are driving the exhumation process, until now, PA sources say they've yet to put forward a sophisticated plan on how to carry it out, in contrast to the Swiss who submitted detailed instructions following scientific requirements.

Who knows what the Russians will intend to do when they arrive.

Dependent on imagination

With cameras and journalists blocked from attending or even witnessing without cameras [Al Jazeera requested but was denied by President Abbas], we'll just have to use our imaginations.

Four metres below the Ramallah topsoil - embarrassingly for the PA, Arafat is not buried at the depth according to Islamic procedure - we may find the answer entombed in concrete.

The results of those tests will most certainly open a new chapter on what killed this historic figure, hopefully adding hard facts one way or the other to the discussion rather than misinformation and myth.

But should the case be crucially ruled a homicide, it will prove the denouement of the final act in this saga that everyone wants answered regarding who killed Arafat.

As I write, there is no way to predict whether that will be possible.

But it would almost certainly not be without this long overdue procedure.