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National News

November 27, 2012

Experts exhume remains of Palestinian leader

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian authorities on Tuesday exhumed the remains of their late leader Yasser Arafat, overriding cultural taboos against disturbing a gravesite to determine with the help from foreign experts whether he was poisoned, as relatives and political successors have claimed.

Arafat, an icon of Palestinian nationalism, died in a French military hospital in November 2004, a month after suddenly falling ill. The immediate cause of death was a stroke, but the underlying reasons were unclear, leading to widespread belief in the Arab world that Israel poisoned him — a claim Israel denies.

An investigation was launched at the time, but it then lay dormant for years, only to be revived this summer when a Swiss lab detected traces of a lethal radioactive substance in biological stains on his clothing.

On Tuesday morning, after several weeks of preparations, Arafat’s remains were taken from his mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah and moved to a nearby mosque, according to two Palestinian officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the exhumation with the media.

At the mosque, Palestinian physicians took samples from the remains and handed them to Swiss, French and Russian experts, the officials said. According to Islam, only Muslims can handle a Muslim’s remains. The foreign experts will examine the samples in their home countries, the officials said. Earlier, samples were also taken from Arafat’s bedroom, office and personal belongings, they said.

The Palestinian government had earlier covered parts of Arafat’s mausoleum with a large sheet of blue tarpaulin to prevent any filming of the opening of the grave. Arafat was widely revered, and there were concerns that disturbing his grave could spark protests.

Public reaction in the West Bank was mixed.

Nidaa Younes, a Palestinian government employee, said it was unnecessary to dig up the remains. “Our religion forbids exhuming graves. It is not nice at all to do this, even if religion permits it in some cases,” she said, adding that she believes Israel was responsible for Arafat’s death.

Ramallah resident Tony Abdo said he supports the exhumation, expecting it to prove that Arafat did not die a natural death.

Accusations that Arafat was poisoned revived after the Swiss laboratory, featured in a televised investigation by Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, said it discovered elevated traces of polonium-210 on clothing said to be Arafat’s.

Arafat’s widow, Suha, had handed over his medical file and what she said was a duffel bag of his belongings, including a fur hat and a woolen cap with some of his hair, a toothbrush, and clothing with his urine and blood stains.

The laboratory, Switzerland’s Institute of Radiation Physics, said the findings were inconclusive and that Arafat’s bones would have to be tested for more concrete proof. That prompted a request to have his remains exhumed, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, approved the request this summer.

But the exhumation and the testing of the remains might not resolve the mystery. Polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and some experts say it is not clear whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.

For decades, Arafat was the symbol of the Palestinians’ struggle for an independent state. Since returning to the Palestinian territories in the early 1990s, as part of interim peace deals with Israel, he zigzagged between leading negotiations with Israel and condoning violence as a means of obtaining political goals.

A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his commitment to work toward peace with Israel, Arafat later presided over the Palestinians as they waged a violent uprising against the Jewish state.

Israel accused him of ordering attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, and confined him to his Ramallah compound. He stayed there for more than two years before falling ill. He was 75 when he died.

He was equally controversial among Palestinians, with some accusing his political circle of corruption and the pocketing of large amounts of aid. But he remains a widely revered figure in the Palestinian territories, and his portrait frequently appears in government offices and street posters.

 

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