Yasser Arafat’s Underwear Tells Experts Little About His Death

Swiss toxicologists, in quest for evidence of radiation poisoning, find inconclusive evidence.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Nine years after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and more than a year after Al Jazeera broadcast a report claiming he died of radiation exposure to polonium 210, the circumstances of Arafat's death remain a mystery.

Since February of last year, however, teams of Swiss toxicology experts have been seeking to solve the riddle. They haven't finalized the results of their study and there is no date set for publication of their findings, but an article published this week in the British medical journal The Lancet by the eight experts involved in the investigation describes the series of testing ordered by Arafat's widow, Suha.

In February of last year, she gave the researchers full access to her husband's medical file and to his personal effects in an effort to confirm her claim that he had been poisoned. In the Lancet article, the researchers state that DNA testing has confirmed the items did indeed belong to the Palestinian president.

In an effort to assess the possibility that he ingested polonium 210 in his food or drink, the researchers have focused their investigation on testing of stains on personal items including Arafat's underwear, toothbrush, a hospital cap and his track suit, in addition to other items. A total of 75 items were tested including 38 used by Arafat. The remaining objects were not the Palestinian leader's and were tested to establish a baseline for purposes of comparison.

The results have been inconclusive. The Lancet article, which constitutes an interim report of sorts on the investigation, therefore might not only serve those looking to confirm a conspiracy theory in Arafat's demise but also those who subscribe to the belief that the death was from natural causes, particularly after Arafat had been living under an Israeli siege at his Muqata headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The toxicologists state in the report that they have discovered unexplained traces of polonium in bodily fluid stains found on Arafat's belongings. The findings may support the possibility that the Palestinian leader was indeed poisoned.

In their article, the investigators wrote that their findings are "compatible with the ingestion" of plutonium in 2004, adding that the Palestinian's clinical condition does not allow them to rule out such plutonium poisoning. And although his hair loss would have been expected due to radiation treatments that he received, it might have also been caused by an internal radiation source, they wrote.

Scientific knowledge regarding symptoms associated with polonium 210 exposure is limited because there have only been a small number of cases in which people have been exposed to the radioactive substance. The most prominent case, from 2006, involved the poisoning in London of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. British security services found that Litvinenko's tea was spiked with polonium 210 while he was at a restaurant. He died about three weeks later, after suffering from hair loss, intestinal problems, vomiting and weight loss.

The Al Jazeera report claimed that Arafat suffered from similar symptoms. Although the researchers looking into his death don't yet have definite proof as to what caused Arafat's condition to deteriorate, they believe that forensic evidence in the case presented "sufficient doubt" to justify last year's exhumation of Arafat's body for further testing. The international medical community, they added, "should continue to consider toxicological analyses of body samples" in cases involving an unknown cause of death.

Suha and Yasser Arafat.Credit: AP

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