Swiss Report Supports Theory Yasser Arafat Was Poisoned, But Doesn’t Prove It

Was Arafat poisoned? A new report raises some questions, but answers none of them conclusively.

Yasser Arafat

For many Palestinians, Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 has been shrouded in mystery for the nine or so years since it occurred. According to his family, the late Palestinian leader was in supposedly good health and living in his West Bank compound when, all of a sudden, he became ill and transferred to France, where doctors were unable to help him and he eventually died. Rumors about the cause ranged from some form of cancer to even AIDS, but nothing conclusive was ever determined. Last year, though, a report was released claiming that some of Arafat’s personal belongings had tested positive for Polonium, a radioactive substance known to cause violent death to anyone who comes in contact with it. While the theory that Arafat was poisoned was called into question by some, his widow and other close aides persisted and, eventually, his body was exhumed for more extensive testing. Now, with that testing concluded, a report is out that seems to provide some support to a poisoning theory but provides no conclusive proof of the same:

JERUSALEM — Nine years of mystery and intrigue surrounding the death of Yasir Arafat, the symbol of the Palestinian national struggle, took a contentious turn on Wednesday with the publication of a forensics report by Swiss scientists that lends support to the theory that Mr. Arafat died of poisoning with radioactive polonium-210.

Al Jazeera, the Arabic television channel based in Qatar, reported the findings of the Swiss team and posted what it said was a copy of the team’s 108-page report on its website.

The news channel has been instrumental in advancing the theory that Mr. Arafat was poisoned with polonium, a radioactive element that became widely known following the death of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent who became a critic of the Russian government. He died in London in 2006 after drinking tea contaminated with the substance.

The University of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, said that it was approached by a reporter for Al Jazeera English on behalf of Suha Arafat, Mr. Arafat’s widow, in January 2012. Providing a travel bag containing personal effects that Mr. Arafat took with him to the French military hospital where he died, Al Jazeera commissioned a forensic examination. The Swiss institute found “an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210” in Mr. Arafat’s belongings and recommended further testing. Those results led to an exhumation a year ago.

Along with the Swiss, Russian and French teams were assigned to test the remains in an effort to resolve questions about Mr. Arafat’s death in November 2004 at age 75, given the suspicions among his supporters and others that he had been killed by agents of Israel or by Palestinian rivals.

The latest Swiss report, dated Nov. 5, said that taking into account analytical limitations such as the time elapsed since Mr. Arafat’s death, its findings “moderately support the proposition” that the death was the consequence of polonium poisoning.

Yet last month the head of the Russian team told the Interfax news agency that Russian experts had found no traces of polonium in Mr. Arafat’s remains. Soon after, the Russians denied having made any statement.

The French investigators have not yet released any findings, lawyers for Ms. Arafat in Paris said Wednesday evening.

In an interview broadcast on Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Ms. Arafat, who received a copy of the Swiss report, said its findings proved that her husband had been assassinated. “I am mourning Yasir again,” she said.

She said she would not stop fighting until the perpetrators were brought to justice, but added, “I don’t know who did it.”

Ms. Arafat’s relations with the current Palestinian leadership are notoriously hostile.

Not withstanding his widow’s insistence, the Swiss report most certainly doesn’t prove anything at all. This is especially true given the fact that the Russian report would seem to contradict the idea that Polonium was involved in any way in Arafat’s death. Indeed, as many of the comments to my original post on this theory back in July 2012 noted, the decay rate of Polonium raises serious questions about whether any amount of the substance found today, whether on Arafat’s belongings or on his remains actually proved anything about what happened nine years ago. These same questions were raised by others in the weeks that followed that initial report. In other words, even the very premise for examining Arafat’s body at this late date should be called into question, and any findings that are found at this point that claim to be conclusive should be questioned.  As I noted, though, the Swiss report is not conclusive at all, and it’s unlikely that the French report will be either. Even the Russian report, which found no evidence of Polonium poisoning isn’t necessarily confusing because of the decay issue. So, as objective evidence of anything, the report strikes me as being rather worthless.

That, however, is a matter of science and rational argument that isn’t likely to be part of how this story plays out going forward. Ultimately, the question becomes what the Palestinian people believe going forward. If they start to believe that Arafat was poisoned, then they’ll react the same way that his widow now is and start to wonder who it is who might have done it. Was it political enemies inside the Palestinian Authority? That his enemies among that group might want to go after him certainly makes sense, but one wonders how they’d get their hands on a substance like Polonium. The other natural suspect, of course, and the one that many Palestinians are likely to point to first is Israel, and Jeffrey Goldberg examines that part of the theory:

Israeli anxiety about such accusations, arising at a sensitive time in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, is understandable, but the Israeli government should remember that it was the official policy of several past Israeli leaders to try to kill Arafat, who was the head of a terrorist organization that had murdered many Israeli civilians. I had several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principal Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, and today’s report sent me back to a profile I wrote of Sharon that appeared 12 years ago in the New Yorker. The profile was published just as Sharon was running, successfully, for prime minister. Here’s what I wrote directly on the subject of assassination:

Sharon was blunt on the subject of Arafat. “He’s a murderer and a liar,” he said. “He’s an enemy. He’s a bitter enemy.” Sharon has devoted a great deal of time and energy to Arafat. 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. “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.”

In other conversations with me in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sharon, who has been in a stroke-induced coma for more than seven years, did not resort to euphemism. Once, he described to me how Israel would have been better off had Arafat been killed by the Israeli army in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an invasion that Sharon led. It was, he said, “a missed opportunity.”

So did Sharon order Arafat’s death, was it his political enemies, or did Arafat indeed die of natural causes from what may or may not have been cancer or some other sudden, chronic illness. As we sit here today, there’s apparently no conclusive way to answer that question. However, as with many things in the Middle East, what matters in the end is what people believe happened. In that case, if the popular belief arises that the Israeli’s acted to assassinate the person most Palestinians consider the father of Palestinian nationhood (ignoring the fact that he was, in the end, little more than a murderer and a terrorist) could seriously complicate the situation on the ground in a part of the world that is already far too complicated.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. bill says:

    and nobody cares, just another “nobel peace prize” winner who should not have received such an honor- back then it was actually an honor- a real one at that. now it’s a self esteem trophy for wannabes.