Samples taken from corpse of late PLO leader will be used to investigate claims he was poisoned with a radioactive substance

Yasser Arafat was buried eight years ago to a chorus of gunfire before a crowd of thousands amid the rubble of his Ramallah headquarters.

On Tuesday, his corpse was quietly dug up again in the middle of the night, shielded from prying eyes, to test a suspicion that the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader was poisoned with a radioactive substance.

The tests were in part prompted by a French murder inquiry requested by Arafat's widow. But there's a good chance they will not provide the answers many Palestinians want to hear. And even if the tests do show he was poisoned, they are also likely to raise unsettling questions many may not want to face.

At Arafat's funeral in 2004, Palestinians packed the Muqata - the old British administration building that served as his headquarters after his return to the West Bank - and every rooftop within sight as his coffin was navigated through the chanting, shooting crowds, past the rubble left by the Israeli siege to a hastily dug grave site.

The Muqata has been rebuilt, after large parts were destroyed by Israeli tanks, and transformed into a sprawling presidential palace of Jerusalem stone. Arafat's mausoleum is now a towering quadrangle of limestone and glass, a reflecting pool, and an honour guard.

But all of that was hidden behind large blue tarpaulins, hung to shield the exhumation from outsiders as at around midnight workers began the lengthy process of drilling down through metres of concrete poured over the coffin.

Before dawn, Arafat's remains were finally reached. A Palestinian doctor and foreign forensic experts looked at the state of the corpse and decided against attempting to remove the whole thing. The Palestinian doctor instead took only samples, which were moved to a mosque where they were prepared for examination by international teams from France, Russia and Switzerland.

This time, the streets and rooftops around the Muqata were abandoned - although that did not mean there was no interest.

Many ordinary Palestinians have long believed Arafat was murdered by Israel, but they are divided over whether that warrants digging him up.

"He should have been left alone," said Munir Jaara at a coffee shop close to the Muqata. "We all know the Israelis killed him so what's it going to prove to disturb his body? It's disrespectful."

Ghada Nayfeh differed. "We need to find the truth. It was very suspicious how he died, just like that, under siege from the Israelis," she said.

The speed of Arafat's death at 75 after a short unexplained illness fed the suspicions of foul play that took hold among Palestinians almost immediately after his funeral even though French officials determined he died at a Paris military hospital from a stroke caused by a blood disorder.

Arafat's widow, Suha, refused to permit apostmortem examination at the time. But earlier this year she gave some of her late husband's personal items that were with him when he died, including his toothbrush, underwear and iconic kaffiyeh, to Al Jazeera television which sent them to Switzerland for tests. The Institut de Radiophysique discovered abnormal levels of polonium-210, a radioactive substance linked to the death of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

However, the tests were inconclusive and so Suha Arafat, a French citizen, asked the French government to launch a murder inquiry. The Palestinian Authority, suspicious of Arafat's widow – who is not a popular figure among Palestinians – and the French and Swiss experts, called in Russian scientists to do separate analysis.

This week, French magistrates have been questioning Palestinian officials who were besieged with Arafat in the Muqata because it's unlikely the PLO leader's food or drink could have been poisoned without a collaborator inside the building.

The Israelis had an opportunity to interfere with food deliveries which passed through their checkpoints during the siege. But they had no way of knowing who would be eating what and the fact that there was no mass poisoning inside the Muqata would mean that Arafat's food was contaminated by someone with direct access to it.

Israel has repeatedly denied killing Arafat and called on the Palestinian leadership to release his medical records, which it has steadfastly refused to do.

Six hours after he was dug up, Arafat was reinterred with the same lack of fanfare. Plans for a ceremony with military honours were called off when it was decided that the samples removed from the coffin did not require a reburial.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

Watch the video, broadcast by the Associated Press on Nov. 27.