There has been persistent speculation in the Arab world that Israel poisoned Yasser Arafat. Israel has denied such allegations.(Photo: Abbas Momani, AFP)
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian authorities on Tuesday opened
Yasser Arafat's grave and foreign experts took samples from his remains
as part of a long-shot attempt - eight years after the iconic leader's
mysterious death - to determine whether he was poisoned, as relatives
and some political successors have claimed.
The exhumation began
before dawn, under the cover of huge sheets of blue tarpaulin draped
over Arafat's mausoleum in his former government compound in the West
Bank city of Ramallah.
By mid-morning, the grave was reclosed,
said Tawfik Tirawi, a former Palestinian intelligence chief who heads
the investigation into Arafat's death.
Arafat died in November
2004 at a French military hospital, a month after suddenly falling ill
at his Ramallah compound, which was at the time besieged by Israeli
troops. 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 the 75-year-old symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
Israel has denied involvement in Arafat's death.
investigation was launched at the time, but it then lay dormant for
years, only to be revived this summer when a Swiss lab detected elevated
traces of a lethal radioactive substance, polonium-210, in biological
stains on his clothing.
The lab said the tests were inconclusive
and that it needed to examine the remains for a clearer picture.
Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, authorized the exhumation despite
strong cultural and religious taboos against disturbing a gravesite,
apparently to avoid any suggestion that the current leadership was
standing in the way of a thorough investigation.
Since mid-November, workers have been drilling through thick layers of concrete encasing the tomb.
grave was opened before dawn Tuesday, according to a Palestinian
official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not
authorized to discuss the details of the exhumation with the media.
official said some of the remains were moved to a nearby mosque, but
that the team then encountered technical difficulties. He would not
elaborate. The experts decided to return the remains to the grave and
take the samples without moving what was left of the body, the official
The exhumation was attended by experts from Switzerland,
France and Russia who will examine the samples in their home countries,
the official said. Earlier, samples were also taken from Arafat's
bedroom, office and personal belongings, he said.
Public reaction in the West Bank was mixed.
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
Ramallah resident Tony Abdo said he supports the exhumation, expecting it to prove that Arafat did not die a natural death.
about Arafat's death flared again over the summer, when the Arab
satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera took some of Arafat's belongings,
provided by his widow Suha, to a Swiss lab for testing. The belongings
being tested included what Mrs. Arafat said were her husband's fur hat
and a woolen cap with some of his hair, a toothbrush, and clothing with
his urine and blood stains.
The Institute of Radiation Physics
discovered elevated traces of polonium-210, the same substance that
killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned Kremlin critic,
Mrs. Arafat urged the Palestinian Authority, the West
Bank-based self-rule government headed by Abbas, to exhume her husband's
remains and also asked the French government to launch a separate
investigation. Eventually, Abbas also requested that Russia join the
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
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.
along with two Israeli leaders, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994
for his commitment to work toward peace with Israel. He later presided
over the Palestinians as they waged a violent uprising against Israel's
occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories
they seek for an independent state.
Israel accused him of ordering
attacks against Israelis, and confined him to his Ramallah compound. He
stayed there for more than two years before falling ill.
later years, Arafat also faced criticism at home, 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.