Arafat's Body Exhumed In Poisoning Investigation

The Palestinian Authority (PA) dug up the body of its late President Yasser Arafat on Tuesday as part of an international investigation into whether he was poisoned. The investigation was launched this summer, eight years after Arafat's death, when a Swiss lab found traces of the radioactive element polonium on Arafat's personal effects. The exhumation comes at a sensitive time, as the PA is suffering from a legitimacy crisis and is being upstaged by its rival Hamas. The exhumation also distracts attention from the the group's bid to upgrade its status at the U.N.

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died eight years ago of a stroke in a French hospital. Today, on the West Bank, his tomb was opened and his remains exhumed. Palestinian authorities led the effort. And now, European experts will try to determine if Arafat was poisoned. This past July, a Swiss laboratory found traces of a radioactive substance on his clothes. Many Palestinians believe Israel assassinated Arafat. Israel denies that.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the reopening of the case adds controversy at an already complex moment in Palestinian politics.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Palestinian soldiers guard the entrances to the mukataa, the stone-walled compound and mausoleum where Arafat once lived and worked. Inside, investigators took samples from Arafat's bones before reinterring them. College student Elal al-Suri(ph) is passing by the compound. She says she has mixed feelings about digging up the late leader.

ELAL AL-SURI: (Through translator) There must be respect for the dead. But we should exhume President Arafat in order to find out what really happened to him. These matters should not be kept secret.

KUHN: General Tawfiq Tirawi is in charge of the Palestinian investigation committee. He says the cause of Arafat's death is not a mystery.

GENERAL TAWFIQ TIRAWI: (Through translator) We have evidence that President Arafat was assassinated. And we will continue with our investigation until we get all the relevant details.

KUHN: Tirawi argues that Israel's government has assassinated other Palestinian leaders and had indicated that it would like to be rid of Arafat too. Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff covered Arafat's death for the newspaper Haaretz. He says that the Israeli government did, indeed, consider this option.

AVI ISSACHAROFF: Yes, they wanted him dead. There was a discussion whether to assassinate Arafat or not. But in the end, the answer was: No, we shouldn't assassinate him. Israel should not get into some kind of an adventure that you can never know how will it end.

KUHN: French, Swiss and Russian experts will now take the samples back to their countries to examine. They'll be looking for traces of the radioactive isotope Polonium 210 which could take several months. But Issacharoff says that no matter what the investigation concludes, the narrative of Arafat's martyrdom will still generally be treated as an ironclad fact in the West Bank.

ISSACHAROFF: The thing here is this myth or conspiracy theory and you cannot change it. Even if the main conclusion of those teams - the Swiss, the French, the Russians - will say no, he was not poisoned, they won't buy it.

KUHN: In fact, even General Tirawi says that he would ignore evidence that Arafat was not poisoned.

TIRAWI: (Through translator) If the investigation yields negative results, that does not concern me. If I reach a deadlock, I will announce it. But for now, we will continue regardless of the results of the examinations.

KUHN: West Bank residents recently demonstrated in support of their government's bid this week to upgrade Palestine's status at the U.N. A few days earlier, they protested Israel's campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Observers say that much of the significance of Arafat's brief resurrection is that it comes sandwiched between these two events. Whether this timing helps or hurts the Palestinian authority, though, is a matter of debate. The point, General Tirawi says, is that the investigation will bring justice.

TIRAWI: (Through translator) We will bring any murderer we find to justice. If he is a Palestinian, he will be brought before a Palestinian court. If he is a foreigner, he will be brought before the International Court of Justice.

KUHN: Taking the case to The Hague would be made easier if the U.N. recognizes Palestine as a non-member state this week. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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