Arafat poisoned, world fails to notice


Just a couple weeks ago I was thinking how strange it is that one of the world’s most notorious political figures, Yasser Arafat, could be dead for more than seven years and no one knows — or, frankly, appeared in any great hurry to find out — what killed him.  Well, it turns out that just then Al Jazeera was nearing the end of a nine-month investigation into this very question and their conclusion ought to have been a bombshell: they documented evidence suggesting that Arafat, who died of a mysterious ailment at a French military hospital on 11 November 2004, had been poisoned with polonium.  This is the same radioactive element used to assassinate the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko a couple years later, in 2006, but it is sufficiently rare that no one thought to test for it at the time of Arafat’s death.  Al Jazeera cooperated with Arafat’s widow, Suha, to have his personal effects tested at various laboratories and they found abnormally high levels of polonium; though they stopped short of concluding that this was proof he had been poisoned — presumably by the Israelis — this led immediately to a request from Suha Arafat to have her husband’s body exhumed for further testing.

Big news, you would think, but the story received substantially less play in the global media than I would have expected.  The New York Times reported on the last part, about the exhumation, but downplayed the likelihood Arafat had been poisoned.  Certainly, there were red flags in Al Jazeera’s report (embedded above) that suggested they might be breathing a little heavily given the available evidence.  To begin with, Suha Arafat is an enormously controversial person in Palestinian circles and she is so intimately involved in Al Jazeera’s report that at times it practically looks like a home movie.  Some of the scenes are conspicuously contrived: at a pivotal moment, Suha drives to the French military hospital to submit her demands to the French officials and just happens to receive a phone call from her daughter, which she takes — in English, on speakerphone — and then has a stilted conversation asking her on camera whether she agrees with the investigation; at the end of the film, Suha is ostensibly shown the results of Al Jazeera’s investigation ‘for the first time’ and — again on camera — immediately pivots to her demand that Arafat’s body be exhumed, which looks to have all the premeditation of Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant that unleashed the pseudo-grassroots tea party activism.

But at the end of the day, Al Jazeera has assembled a reasonably credible case for believing Arafat might have been poisoned by radioactive polonium; certainly, there seems to be more to support this view than some of the other things rumored to have killed him, like AIDS or cirrhosis of the liver.  If the diagnosis is confirmed by exhuming Arafat’s body, Al Jazeera reporter Clayton Swisher will have had his Woodward and Bernstein moment and the world’s media will have to explain why it did not dedicate more resources to chasing Al Jazeera’s lead on this.


The last time my mind wandered to a big unanswered question in the Middle East it was to ask why Osama bin Laden was still alive 3,514 days after 11 September 2001 — and then he was killed five days later.


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