Renowned European scientists debunk Palestinian myth Arafat was poisoned

A doctor treating the Palestinian leader said in the days before his death that Arafat had a blood disorder – though they ruled out leukemia. This was confirmed by French doctors.



At the end of January, there were media reports that Palestinian officials were very angry at US Secretary of State John Kerry for threatening PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry had reportedly said that Abbas would meet the same fate as his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, if he were to turn down Washington’s proposals for a peace agreement with Israel.

Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat, not yet dead

Kerry’s remarks were no doubt a reference to the isolation of Yasser Arafat by the Bush administration after it became apparent that the PA president was behind the botched attempt to smuggle weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Authority in 2002.

But Jamal Muhaissen, a senior Fatah official, said in a reaction that ‘Kerry’s threat shows that Israel assassinated Yasser Arafat after receiving green light from the US administration’. Kerry’s threat, he added, would pave the way for bringing Kerry before the International Criminal Court for threatening the life of an elected Palestinian president. (Note: Abbas’ term as president of the PA ended in 2009.)

Muhaissen’s comments illustrate again the level of incitement against Israel by Palestinian leaders.

The myth that Israel poisoned Arafat by means of a dose of Polonium 210 is repeated often as a way to mobilize the Palestinian street against the Jewish state.

Now a Belgian scientist, Rudi Roth, has delivered irrefutable proof that Arafat did not die of Polonium 210 poisoning.

Opposing narratives

Until now, it might have been arguable that there are two conflicting narratives about the circumstances that led to Arafat’s death.

The Palestinians claim the former PLO leader was poisoned by Israel and refer to tests conducted in 2012 to prove they are right.

Those tests revealed that Arafat’s final personal belongings – his clothes, his toothbrush, even his iconic keffiyeh – contained abnormal levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element. The Arafat belongings were analyzed at the Institute for Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Those tests were paid for by Arafat’s widow Suha and led to the re-opening of his tomb in Ramallah in November 2012.

Russian, French and Swiss investigators took samples from his body and shroud and the surrounding soil. The Swiss report from the University Centre of Legal Medicine (CHUV) in Lausanne was published by Al Jazeera in November 2013.

CHUV came to the conclusion that Arafat could indeed have been poisoned by Polonium 210. The report was quickly adopted by the Palestinians and their supporters as establishing that Israel killed Yasser Arafat as alleged. Suha Arafat said the results of the Swiss examination showed her husband was killed and that a crime had been committed.

The Israeli narrative was, and is, that Arafat probably died as a result of HIV infection and that Israel had nothing to do with his death.

Roth’s investigation

These conflicting narratives led Roth, the Belgian scientist, to conduct his own investigation which was published by the news site Joods Aktueel.

He analyzed the Swiss report and contacted CHUV in Lausanne, Switzerland as well as medical and research specialists in several European countries. He also consulted scientific publications on the matter.

Here is what he wrote about the Swiss report after consulting with several European experts:

“What is quite astonishing in a report which purports to be scientific is the lack of all-important error margins or confidence intervals. Some error margins are shown in X.1.4.16 on p. 94 but they are considered as typical and not as specifically applicable to the research done. Also error margins add up very fast in calculations or when comparisons are made”.

Roth contacted Professor François Bochud, director of  CHUV and leader of the research team in Lausanne, Switzerland, who admitted in an email:

“Considering the major uncertainties linked to the models (only validated by very few cases) and the measured values it did not seen reasonable to reconstruct the polonium ingestion by reverse calculation.”

He cites Professor Atie Verschoor, Expertise Centre Environmental Medicine (ECEMed) in the Netherlands:

“Indeed Bochud confirms there are important uncertainties in the used model and for that reason and several others no conclusions at all can be taken. That had to be the conclusion of the report. “

Verschoor furthermore stated that the “error-margins are very high caused by the fact that the material has not been kept in a controlled environment (8 years in a tomb). The decontamination operation and the calculation trying to eliminate the Po-210 quantity caused by radon in the soil. There are a lot of assumptions and that creates important inaccuracies. The researchers must have noticed it but did not document it.”

Professor Verschoor was very clear about the Swiss report:

“The several data in the report have quite a lot of variation. Even ribs have surprisingly different quantities of Po-210. This is due to the fact that the body remained for a long time in the tomb. The researchers had insufficient material to be decontaminated and beside that it had to be corrected for Po-210 originated from Radon. The entirety has big inaccuracies that don’t allow to draft any conclusion.”

Roth also cites Kai Vetter, head of applied nuclear physics at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who said: “After so many half-lives (implying a division by 2.342.180), you can’t reliably say how much polonium was there eight years ago, there’s too much background interference (from other radiation sources)”

Another expert cited by Roth is Professor Nicholas Priest who formerly headed the biomedical research unit of the Atomic Energy Authority in the UK. He mentioned that one of his colleagues noted that the comparisons in the report are always performed versus mean values used in scientific literature, though most of these follow a statistical normal distribution whereby confidence is expressed in percentage. Therefore there is no real confidence interval provided by the report.

Priest told the British newspaper The Independent that it is “far too dangerous and scientifically unjustified” to calculate how much Polonium was in Arafat’s body on the basis of “such tiny concentrations of Polonium”.

Priest told The Independent that, while poisoning by Polonium “cannot be totally ruled out”, the symptoms were very different from those of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko who died in London in 2006.

He also noted: “Key indicators it was not polonium [that killed Arafat] were lack of hair loss in the face, and no damage to his bone marrow, both of which were found extensively in Litvinenko.”


Arafat on his way to a French hospital days before he died

Professor Priest continued: “Photographs show Arafat stepping into a helicopter on the way to France sporting a white beard, while pictures of Litvinenko in hospital reveal an absence of any hair”.

Paddy Regan, a professor of radionuclide metrology in the physics department at the UK’s University of Surrey who was interviewed by CNN described the forensic examination as follows:

“It’s like a blindfolded man holding the tail of an elephant and using that to estimate the weight of the elephant. You can do it, but there is a huge amount of extrapolation involved.”

Professor Alfred Bernard, an industrial toxicologist at the University of Louvain, UCL, Belgium wrote to Roth:

“The data obtained on residual Po and PB can be qualified as ‘inconclusive’…The second element is the clinical picture of the victim. In this instance, the comparison with the Litvinenko case is interesting. The period between the onset of the first symptoms and death is quite comparable (3 to 4 weeks in both cases) which means that, in the event of Arafat having been poisoned by Po210, the gravity of the poisoning would be comparable and therefore the clinical picture the same. It must be acknowledged, on the basis of available evidence, that Arafat’s clinical picture does not support the hypothesis of poisoning by Po210. A drop in blood cells in addition to hair loss did not occur. It is my belief that if that was Arafat’s clinical picture, French doctors would have proceeded to investigate radionuclides. … Investigations were performed too late and the clinical picture does not back up the tested hypothesis.”

At the end of his report Roth, cites professor Roland Masse, a member of the prestigious Académie de Médecine in France, who currently teaches radiopathology at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Paris where Arafat was hospitalised two weeks before his death.

Masse told the Times of Israel and Le Figaro a year ago that it would have been impossible to miss radioactive poisoning in the tests that were carried out at the hospital. The tests showed that there was absolutely no way Arafat was poisoned.

Regarding  the Po-210 found in the stains of Arafat’s belongings, Roland Masse added: “There is Po-210 all around; when you look for it you will find it”.

So what killed Yasser Arafat?

Before answering this question, it is worthwhile to read what Robert Fisk, Middle-East correspondent for the Independent, wrote in 2012 about Arafat’s last days in Ramallah:

“Arafat did not look after himself. Diplomats who visited him there in the last days were appalled at the lack of hygiene, the blocked lavatories, Arafat’s own physical deterioration. One embassy official from Europe described to me how, during a conversation, Arafat was absent-mindedly tearing dead skin off his toes with his fingers.” and “In the end…his few visitors noted how old he looked, how sick. One Scandinavian diplomat who managed to visit him noted how he no longer wore socks, how he had a habit of picking loose skin from his feet during interviews, how the lavatories smelled.” [The Independent]

Palestinian officials and a doctor treating the Palestinian leader said in the days before his death that Arafat had a blood disorder – though they ruled out leukaemia – and that he had digestive problems. This has been confirmed by French doctors.

What was this blood disorder mentioned by Palestinian officials?

Arafat’s personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, had already answered this question in 2007. Arafat’s blood contained the HIV virus, he said while insisting that the virus had been injected into Arafat’s body close to his death.

When al-Kurdi claimed this in an interview with Al-Jazeerah, the network cut short the live interview. Al-Kurdi was kept away from Arafat when his situation began to deteriorate and was refused entrance to the French hospital where Arafat died.

Roth may have laid to rest the claim that Arafat was poisoned by Israel once and for all. But it seems we are likely to see the myth continue to live on in the Arab world and poison the minds of Palestinians .


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