RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories — One of the biggest Middle East enigmas could come closer to a resolution on Tuesday, as remains of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are exhumed to enable investigators to seek traces of poison.
The process will cap eight years of speculation about whether the former president was murdered, as many Palestinians believe.
French judges in charge of the investigation arrived on Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat’s mausoleum stands in the grounds of the Muqataa complex, from which the late leader ruled and where president Mahmud Abbas has his headquarters.
Rumours and speculation have surrounded Arafat’s death ever since a quick deterioration of his health before he died at the Percy military hospital near Paris in November 2004 at the age of 75.
Doctors were unable at the time to say what killed the Palestinians’ first democratically-elected president and an autopsy was never performed, at his widow Suha’s request.
But many Palestinians believed he was poisoned by Israel — a theory that gained ground in July when Al-Jazeera reported Swiss findings showing abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat’s personal effects.
France opened a formal murder inquiry in late August at Suha’s request.
Polonium was the substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Experts from the Swiss lab that tested the samples for the Al-Jazeera news network will work alongside the French investigators. Russian specialists will also be taking part in the process, at the request of the Palestinian leadership.
The exhumation process is to take place behind blue plastic sheets and far from the public view, with the French investigators overseeing the process.
Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian team investigating Arafat’s death, said the tomb will be opened, samples taken and a reburial ceremony held all on the same day.
An official statement is expected at the end of the process.
The samples will then be flown to laboratories in the three countries involved, with results expected within several months.
Some experts, however, have questioned whether anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short life and dissipates quicker than some other radioactive substances.
And Jean-Rene Jourdain, deputy head of human protection at the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), cautioned it would take several weeks of analysis to be sure that the traces were man-made polonium rather than just coincidental contamination by naturally-occurring polonium.
“Even if traces of polonium are found, it doesn’t mean that they are man-made,” the French nuclear expert told AFP on Monday.