Middle East

Israel poisoned Arafat with polonium: nephew

In this Nov. 7, 2007 file photo members of a Palestinian honor guard stand next to the tombstone, backdropped by a huge poster, which marks the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Israel poisoned the late Yasser Arafat with the lethal radioactive substance polonium, a nephew of the veteran Palestinian leader alleged on Thursday, prompting an Israeli denial.

"We accuse Israel of killing Yasser Arafat by poisoning him with that lethal substance," Nasser al-Qidwa told AFP, referring to polonium, traces of which were recently found on clothing worn by Arafat when he was ailing.

"Those responsible for that assassination should be held accountable and judged," said Qidwa, who is also president of the Yasser Arafat Foundation.

Allegations that the long-time Palestinian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was poisoned were resurrected earlier this month after Al-Jazeera news channel broadcast an investigation in which experts said they had found high levels of polonium on his personal effects.

Polonium is a highly toxic substance which is rarely found outside military and scientific circles, and was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison.

But a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completely rejected Qidwa's charge, denying any involvement in the 75-year-old's death.

"Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat," Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev told AFP. "All the medical files are in the hands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication."

The Arafat Foundation said on Thursday it was releasing all the medical files it had on Arafat's illness and death for the first time, including many from the French military hospital where he died in 2004.

 Proof of poisoning?

Qidwa said the Al-Jazeera investigation meant there was "no longer any doubt" that Arafat was "assassinated by poisoning."

Experts at the Swiss laboratory which conducted the testing said they had found "significant" traces of polonium on Arafat's effects, but that they would need to exhume his body to take further samples to confirm that he was poisoned.

Palestinian officials have said they would agree to the exhumation of the body, which is buried in the West Bank town of Ramallah, if the family agreed.

Arafat's wife Suha, who refused an autopsy at the time of her husband's death, has said she supports exhumation, and Qidwa told AFP on Thursday he would also back such a move.

"The Arafat Foundation contacted the Swiss laboratory and informed them that it had no objection to analysing samples from the body of the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat if it is necessary," he said.

The Palestinians have also called for an international probe into Arafat's death based on Al-Jazeera's nine-month investigation, which centred on the forensic testing of his personal effects handed to Suha by the hospital where he died.

Traces of Arafat's hair, sweat, urine and blood were found in his effects and on his clothing, all of which were sent for testing at several European laboratories.

Abdullah al-Bashir, head of the Arafat Foundation's medical committee, said on Thursday that "official contacts have been made" with the Swiss experts who worked on the Al-Jazeera investigation, to invite them to take additional samples.

And Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, on a visit to Tunisia, urged "our brothers in the Fatah movement to work with us to pursue the Zionists over the blood of Arafat."

The Swiss experts who worked with Al-Jazeera have said any tests should be done quickly because the polonium is decaying and all traces could eventually disappear, but it remains unclear how quickly any exhumation might take place.

Arafat, who led the struggle for Palestinian statehood for nearly four decades, died in a French military hospital on November 11, 2004 after being airlifted there for treatment from his Ramallah headquarters.

At the time of his death, Palestinian officials alleged he had been poisoned by long-time foe Israel, but an inconclusive Palestinian investigation in 2005 ruled out poisoning, as well as cancer and AIDS.

Israel has consistently denied the allegations, accusing Suha Arafat and Palestinian officials of covering up the real reasons for the former leader's death.





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