After more than a decade of speculation and debate about what killed former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a team of French experts has reportedly concluded that radioactive polonium poisoning was not to blame — though their findings will almost certainly not be the last word on a conspiracy theory that refuses to die.
Arafat died in November 2004 at the Percy de Clamart hospital on the outskirts of Paris. Like many African and Middle Eastern leaders before him, he traveled to France for medical care after his health deteriorated.
Arafat fell into a coma on November 3 and died eight days later at the age of 75. His medical records, which were kept secret for a time, state that he died from a stroke caused by bleeding from an unidentified infection. At the time of his death, Arafat's widow Suha requested that no autopsy be performed.
The secrecy surrounding Arafat's medical records and the political context of his death immediately sparked various theories, including the hypothesis that the iconic leader's political rivals could have poisoned him.
But Nanterre prosecutor Catherine Denis told AFP on Monday that the French experts reevaluated data from previous inquiries and reached a conclusion that "disproves the hypothesis of an acute ingestion of polonium-210 in the days preceding the appearance of [Arafat's] symptoms."
Prior to his death in 2004, Arafat was confined to his walled Muqata'a compound in Ramallah, where he had lived surrounded by the Israeli army after a spate of suicide attacks in Gaza in 2002.
In 2012, French daily Le Monde republished a quote by Ariel Sharon from April 2004 in which the Israeli prime minister warned against "any insurance company giving [Arafat] coverage."
Also in 2012, Al Jazeera aired a documentary on Arafat's death that said experts from the Institute of Radiation Physics in the Swiss city of Lausanne found abnormal levels of the radioactive toxin polonium on Arafat's clothing and on his keffiyeh, his trademark black and white headscarf.
Denis told AFP the French experts believe "the polonium-210 and lead-210 found in Arafat's grave and in the samples are of an environmental nature." The AFP report did not state the basis for the experts' conclusion.
Polonium — a rare and highly radioactive chemical discovered by Marie Curie in 1898 — is an extremely dangerous poison, even in minute quantities. In November 2006, former Russian spy and Vladimir Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in London from polonium poisoning.
Arafat's widow Suha lodged a complaint at a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on July 31, 2012, prompting France to launch an inquiry into the death.
Eight years after his death, Arafat's remains were exhumed in Ramallah for testing. Three teams from France, Russia, and Switzerland were tasked with analyzing samples from Arafat's body, as well as urine samples collected during his 2004 hospital stay.
In 2013, the French team of experts released a report confirming Arafat had died "from natural causes," a theory also espoused by the Russians. The Swiss forensic experts, however, suggested that the levels of polonium observed in the samples were consistent with the poisoning theory.
As rumors of political assassination continued to circulate, Israel has consistently denied playing any role in the Palestinian leader's death. In 2013, then president Shimon Peres slammed the poisoning claims, saying that if Israel had wanted Arafat dead, it would have been "easier to shoot him."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud sur Twitter @meloboucho
Photo via Wikimedia Commons