Arafat's Death Could Have Been An Assasination

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 7, 2013 2:42 pm

Could the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have been an assassination?

Many Palestinians have long made that claim, but now there may be some evidence from Swiss scientists. A Swiss lab that examined Arafat’s remains found that he may have been poisoned by radioactive polonium.

The BBC’s Immogen Foulkes speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young from Geneva, Switzerland.


  • Immogen Foulkes, correspondent for the BBC in Geneva. She tweets @ImogenFoulkes.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track this week. But the spotlight has shifted to the question, could the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - reportedly from a stroke relating to a blood disorder - have, in fact, been in truth an assassination? While Arafat has faded from some memories, he was the long-time leader of the Palestinians. He shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Israelis, was seen by the U.S. as a negotiating partner. Many Palestinians have long thought he was murdered. Now Swiss scientists may have some evidence. A Swiss lab that examined Arafat's remains found he may have been poisoned by radioactive polonium.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes is covering the story from Geneva. Imogen, tell us more about the findings from the scientists.

IMOGEN FOULKES: They did indeed find traces of radioactive polonium in the remains of Yasser Arafat, in his bones, rib bones and the sternum, they said, and in some of his personal effects. This would be the travel bag that went with him on that last journey. As you said, it's nine years ago now. He was taken ill in Ramallah and eventually flown to Paris in hospital there for two weeks, and there he died. So the forensic evidence is there. What the Swiss scientists can't definitely say is whether that was the cause of his death.

YOUNG: But what exactly is polonium? And is there any other way that it can get in your bag or in your remains?

FOULKES: Very interesting question. Polonium is a radioactive element available on the market. You can buy it. It's used in very high-tech things, in heaters, in space probes. What the forensic scientists were very categorical about is that you can't just swallow polonium by accident. So their suggestion is it must have been put there. Where they have their caution is that it's not clear to them if that was the cause of his death. No official autopsy was performed at that time. And the Swiss scientists today, while not wishing to criticize their colleagues in France, say it really would have been better if that had happened.

YOUNG: Well, meanwhile, there has been reaction, of course. The spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said the Swiss investigation was more soap opera than science. Israeli officials vehemently denying any role in his death. But his widow, Suha Arafat, has called on the Palestinian leadership to seek justice for her husband. And yet we know that while he may have had enemies as well as friends in Israel - we mentioned he won a Nobel Peace Prize with Israelis - he also had enemies among Palestinians.

FOULKES: Yes, he did. And perhaps what people tend to forget nowadays, as time had move on, is that he was something of a spent force by the time he died. He was the great leader of the Palestinian movement in the '70s, '80s and '90s. But 2004, other groups were coming up, most notably Hamas.

Now, coming back to what you said about the Israelis saying it's more a soap opera than science, I would say that is a little bit unfair to the very experienced forensic unit here in Switzerland because - and there's nothing in their report that says who might have given polonium to Yasser Arafat, if indeed that happened. Their job was to examine his remains, not to apportion blame.

So I think that's a little bit unfortunate, as is the other side's - Yasser Arafat's widow immediately claiming that this is evidence of a political assassination, because neither of those things are the case. The evidence that was presented to us today was that, yes, there was polonium in Yasser Arafat's body, but it's not clear that that was the cause of his death. And there's certainly no sign of who might have put it there.

YOUNG: The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva. Imogen, thank you.

FOULKES: Thanks.

YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.