A woman walks past a mural depicting Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Yasser Arafat in Gaza.
A Palestinian woman walking past a mural depicting Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, left, and Yasser Arafat in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 4, 2012. Photo by AFP
Text size
AP
Suha Arafat rejected an autopsy at the time of her husband's death nearly eight years ago. She has requested one now in light of lab tests that found the lethal substance polonium on his belongings. Photo by AP

As the Palestinian Authority prepared to exhume the body of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli government officials on Wednesday rejected suggestions that Israel may have poisoned him with a lethal radioactive isotope, polonium.

"The report is baseless," said one senior official on condition of anonymity, adding that it was not Israel that decided to keep the late Palestinian leader's medical records closed.

"The circumstances of Arafat's death are not a mystery," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "He was treated in France, in a French hospital by French doctors and they have all the medical information."

A Swiss lab announced that it found elevated levels of polonium on Arafat's belongings. The lab said it tested the items in response to a request by the Al Jazeera TV station, who approached the lab on behalf of Arafat's widow Suha at the beginning of this year.

Suha said the items, including a toothbrush and a fur hat, were used by Arafat in his final days. She said they have since been kept in a secure room at her attorney's office in Paris.

While the lab said it found "very small" quantities of polonium on some items, there were higher quantities in, for example, a urine stain on underwear worn by Arafat and a blood stain on hospital clothing than on belongings he hadn't used, such as new and unworn socks stored in the same bag.

These developments reignited a storm of speculation over what killed Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, 2004 at the age of 75, at a military hospital outside Paris.

On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas cleared the way for a possible autopsy on Arafat's remains, following a request from Suha. While Suha had rejected an autopsy at the time of her husband's death, she now said she wanted one done in the wake of the lab's findings. She did not explain why she waited nearly eight years to have the belongings tested.

Suha's request had put Abbas in a bind, since digging up Arafat's remains would go against the traditions of conservative Muslims and could stir angry protests. But refusing to exhume the body could be seen as an attempt to block an investigation.

The top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, also said Wednesday he would not object to an autopsy on religious grounds.

When Arafat died, French doctors identified the cause of death as a massive brain hemorrhage, which occurred weeks after he fell violently ill at his Ramallah compound in the West Bank.

Arafat had suffered intestinal inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC, according to French medical records. But the records were inconclusive about what brought about DIC, which has numerous causes including infections, colitis and liver disease.

Many in the Arab world had alleged he was killed by Israel, an accusation Israeli officials vociferously denied.

The lab's head, Francois Bochud, said the findings do not necessarily mean Arafat was poisoned, and that it is impossible to say where the polonium might have originated.

A French military doctor said he did not know whether doctors had checked Arafat for polonium when he was hospitalized in 2004. He also said he was unaware of any mention of poisoning in the 558-page classified report on Arafat's death.