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Enough conspiracy theories about Yasser Arafat’s assassination

Palestinians have long suspected their leader Yasser Arafat was assassinated by Israel. Thanks to Clayton Swisher and his team at the Al Jazeera Investigations Unit, we have new evidence they were right all along.


His 2004 death, in then-unclear circumstances, was almost certainly caused by a manufactured radioactive poison – polonium. This is the conclusion supported by a team of Swiss toxicologists, who examined 20 samples extracted from Arafats remain’s (two further teams of Russian and French scientists took 20 more samples each). The Swiss released their full findings in a comprehensive report last week.

Much credit goes to Swisher and his team for forcing the Palestinian Authority’s hand in his investigation. As documented in his “What Killed Arafat?” film last year, scientists discovered suspiciously high levels of polonium on Arafat’s personal belongings. This resulted in world-wide media attention and the opening of a French murder investigation into the death (Arafat died in a French hospital).

And this weekend’s new “Killing Arafat” film was most illuminating in more respects than one. What struck me most was the lengths to which the Palestinian Authority’s thuggish regime (which acts as a proxy for Israel) went to obstruct Swisher’s investigation, reserving particular venom for Al Jazeera.

They blocked their filming, sent undercover goons to tail them around Ramallah – and even broke into their hotel room, rifling through their bags – as revealed by the team’s concealed cameras.

Such behaviour by the PA is highly suspicious, and only adds more reasons to suspect that Israel may have used a Palestinian accomplice for the murder.

Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian Authority’s inquiry into the death emphasised in a press conference last week that “Israel is the one and only suspect” in the case.

There’s very little doubt Israel was behind the crime. But recall that before he fell mysteriously ill, Arafat had been trapped in his compound – under siege by the Israeli military for months. Little was let in or out of the compound. Israel controlled the flow of supplies.

If the murder was indeed carried out by a collaborator with Israel, it’s possible that Tirawi himself (head of the PA’s mukhabarat at the time) may know who it was.

However it was logistically carried out, there is really very little room for rational doubt that Arafat was poisoned.

Eminent British forensic investigator David Barclay (Professor Emeritus at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen) told Al Jazeera in the film he believe the Swiss report shows a “smoking gun” that Arafat was killed by polonium poisoning.

Although the report uses the less dramatic language of “moderately supported” (and an 83 percent probability), Barclay has written that, in context, this would amount to “evidential certainty” for the purposes of persuading a court.

With so much evidence, how can anyone rational doubt Arafat was poisoned? Don’t underestimate the lengths some in the establishment media will go to to absolve Israel of any crime.

Poisoning with polonium alone does not prove it was Israel that did it. But it certainly makes it the prime suspect. Polonium is lethal doses is expensive to produce artificially, and only a small handful of states have the nuclear facilities to do so. Israel is certainly one of them. The others had no interest in killing him.

Israel on the other hand has a long history of assassinating Palestinian leaders, writers and fighters. The bungled 1997 Mossad attempt on the life of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was carried out with a poison quite unknown at the time. If the Israeli agents had remained undetected, and not been caught by Meshaal’s bodyguard in the way they were, the press would probably have ended up reporting Meshaal died from a “mysterious illness” in a similar way that they did for Arafat at the time – when no autopsy was done.

Polonium is the same poison that was used to kill former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The medical reports into that death are not publicly available, and the Swiss toxicologists’ report into Arafat’s remains notes that even for them, it was not possible to obtain the Litvinenko data for the sake of comparison.

But to some in the Western media, the standards of evidence required for concluding Litvinenko was murdered are far lower than for Arafat – who was considered an enemy of Israel.

Pro-war Times columnist David Aaronovitch even told the veteran Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan on a BBC News panel discussion this weekend that he was talking “nonsense” to accuse Israel of doing it. And the third panellist dismissed it all as Arab “conspiracy theories.”

But when such “evidential certainty” – laid out over a 108-page expert report – is dismissed out of hand as Arab conspiracy theory it’s time to question who are the real “conspiracy theorists”.

The only thing remotely approaching a rational point that Aaronovitch made was that a report by Russian scientists into Arafat’s remains was “inconclusive”.

But Aaronovitch conveniently failed to explain several things. Firstly, the Russian report has not been released – unlike the Swiss report, which Al Jazeera immediately made available online for anyone to read.

But Al Jazeera did manage to obtain a leaked extract from the Russian report. Even to non-experts like myself, it’s immediately clear that the report is highly inferior: the Russians collected 20 samples from Arafat’s grave site, but the Russian report extract clearly states (page two) that the Federal Biomedical Agency in Russia were only given four bone samples to test. What happened to the other 16 samples?

Furthermore, the choice of bone samples from “the skull and extremities” was inferior – Arafat had exhibited symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Barclay described the findings of this strangely-abbreviated Russian report as “meaningless”.

“Killing Arafat” recounted how Swisher and his team obtained the report extract from an anonymous leaker, and the back story to the Russians being included in the excavation of Arafat’s remains. It seems that the PA wanted the Russians involved to muddy the waters.

More suspicious behaviour by the PA. Are they protecting Arafat’s killer, or are they simply acting in their usual undemocratic fashion?

The Russians, who appear to have only furnished their report to the PA, should release the full report, and should also test all the remaining samples.

The French team has yet to report on its findings. We look forward to it. Only when the full truth is out can this matter be put to bed. Sadly, the conspiracy theorists are likely to continue on with their racist Orientalising about “Arab conspiracy theories,” regardless of well-documented facts.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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