The Half-life of Truth About Arafat's Death

The conflicts and confusion regarding how Yasser Arafat really died display the limits of traditional journalism in covering the gray areas, where all the secrets are kept.

Matt Rees
Matthew Kalman
Matt Rees
Matthew Kalman

Yasser Arafat was a larger-than-life leader whom no novelist would dare to fashion. His regime consisted of a cast of surreal Dickensian characters: brilliant thinkers, wily money men and desperate rogues. He set his favorites against each other, like gladiators in an arena where weapons were never far from reach.

Conventional journalism couldn’t cope with such an overload of passion and politics. Devised to report on the activities of democratic governments and regulated businesses, journalism is helpless when faced with autocracies and corrupt political machines answerable to no one and capable of unconscionable lies that are sometimes impossible to check.

That fact was hammered home in the last week, when the conventional media reported both that Arafat was poisoned with polonium – and that he wasn’t. In a world now governed less by the authority of nation states and more by semi-criminal oligarchies and ultra-powerful global corporations, stories like the Arafat murder require a different kind of journalism.

Polonium poisoning first entered the picture with a report by Al Jazeera last year. It prompted a French magistrate to open a criminal investigation into Arafat’s suspected murder. Arafat’s bones were exhumed in November 2012 and samples given to French, Russian and Swiss scientists for examination.

Then everyone settled in to wait.

The results were due to be delivered early this year to his widow Suha and to a Palestinian Authority inquiry. So far there has been a deafening silence on what, if anything, the tests reveal.

Last week, nine years after his death, the late Palestinian chief leaped back into the headlines. Or rather his underwear did. Along with his toothbrush and other items kept by Suha.

The British medical journal The Lancet lent its backing to tests carried out at a Swiss laboratory in mid-2012. The report confirmed the scientific data that led researchers to announce that items used and worn by Arafat in his final days bore traces of Polonium-210, a deadly radioactive element. Toxicologists examined 38 items belonging to Arafat and compared them to other clothing held in storage before his death. They found traces that "support the possibility of Arafat's poisoning with Polonium-210." Some of his symptoms, they said, “might suggest radioactive poisoning."

But last Tuesday Vladimir Uiba, head of Russia's Federal Medical-Biological Agency, was quoted by the Interfax news agency denying that the bone samples exhumed from Arafat’s grave had revealed any trace of radiation poisoning. "He could not have died of polonium poisoning. The Russian experts found no traces of this substance," said Uiba.

Or did he deny it? The next day, a spokesman for his agency told AFP that no such statement had been issued. "We have not published any official results of our forensic review," said the spokesman. "Neither have we publicly confirmed or denied media reports about there being or not being polonium in Arafat's remains."

The tantalizing half-truths, hints and denials of the past weeks – and the failure of most news reports to identify the original Lancet article as confirmation of a year-old story or to pin down the accuracy of the Russian statement – reminded us why we chose a different way to tell the story of Arafat’s death in our book, "The Murder of Yasser Arafat."

Last week’s stories proved that conventional journalism is unable to cope with the gray areas where all the secrets are kept. The various news reports were delineated by clear rules for what journalists may or may not say, and they show little concern for the confusion into which they cast their readers. Unless someone comes right out and admits responsibility for killing Arafat, or until a respected authority proves beyond doubt that no-one killed him, readers of traditional journalism will remain in the dark.

We chose to address this story with the kind of writing that truly focuses on secrets and gray areas and structured our nonfiction treatment of Arafat's in the style of hard-boiled crime fiction. Every page of our book reads like fiction. Every word is fact. The news turmoil of the past weeks suggests that we chose the correct medium to write the story.

Our style accords with the reality of Arafat’s rule, after all. The roots of his downfall lay in the shadowy beginnings of the PA. It grew through his intertwined security forces and the overlapping economic machinery of his fiefdom. It was fertilized by financial corruption and fed by the hunger for power that drove his mini-dictatorship. For a decade, Arafat’s bizarre autocracy nurtured shifting loyalties, rivalries and hatreds that eventually could no longer be contained. Arafat paid with his life. A journalist ought to be able to write that clearly enough for a reader to get it.

Matthew Kalman is a foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem for The Daily Mail and codirector of "Circumcise Me: The Comedy of Yisrael Campbell." Matt Rees is former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time and author of seven books including the Omar Yussef Palestinian detective novels. They are the coauthors of "The Murder of Yasser Arafat " (DeltaFourth).

Palestinian boy touching a mural of Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, November 2009.Credit: AP

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