Clashing Reports Offer No Firm Answer On Arafat Poisoning

A report from Swiss medical investigators found substantial evidence to back the theory that Yasser Arafat died as a result of poisoning by polonium, a radio-active element. Arafat died in 2004. The poisoning theory has been around for a number of years, and many Palestinians take it as a given that Israel assassinated their leader. A Russian report says the evidence is not there that Arafat was poisoned. So with more mixed news, how are Palestinians taking the news?

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The longstanding mystery surrounding the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat deepened this week. A Swiss laboratory analysis of Arafat's remains showed enough radioactive polonium to support the theory that he was poisoned. But today, the Palestinian Authority revealed the results of a separate, Russian analysis; and that report did not support the theory that he died of polonium poisoning. NPR's Emily Harris reports from Jerusalem.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Despite the Russian lab findings, Palestinian officials insist that Arafat was murdered nine years ago. Tawfik Tirawi leads the official Palestinian investigation into Arafat's death. Today, he vowed to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

TAWFIK TIRAWI: (Through translator) The crime has different facets. It's not enough to know just the perpetrator of the act. We have to understand the tool that led to the killing.

HARRIS: Tirawi repeated Palestinian accusations that Israel was behind Arafat's death. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor repeated the government's denial.

YIGAL PALMOR: Israel did not kill Arafat and, you know, enough with this Palestinian nonsense. They keep making these groundless accusations without the minimum proof of anything. No, Israel did not kill Yasser Arafat - period.

HARRIS: Journalist Matthew Kalman has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 15 years. Israeli denials, he says, do nothing to sway Palestinian public opinion.

MATTHEW KALMAN: The problem with the Israelis is that they sound exactly the same when they're denying something because they should be denying it, and when they're denying something and they're not telling the truth.

HARRIS: But Kalman's own investigations for a book he co-authored this year, "The Murder of Yasser Arafat," indicate that Israel was not involved.

KALMAN: Our research behind the scenes with the people who basically would've carried out this assassination had it been Israeli policy, suggests that they didn't do it.

HARRIS: Many ordinary Palestinians say they don't know who killed their longtime leader, but they'd really like to.

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HARRIS: Fruit peddlers on bicycles hawk tangerines on a balmy evening in Gaza City. People relaxing in a park talk more about the worsening electricity shortage than the latest twist in the Arafat story. But Tagari Hamda(ph) says she wants the mystery of his death solved.

TAGARI HAMDA: (Through translator) Arafat is the symbol of the Palestinian state. That's why the people who were behind his death should be discovered. For sure, Israel was involved. But I want to know if others were, too.

HARRIS: Fifty miles away, in the West Bank, on the recently built Arafat Square in Ramallah, car parts salesman Mohammed AbdulRahmin(ph) is doing a little shopping. Who killed Arafat? Pick anyone, he says.

MOHAMMED ABDULRAHMIN: (Through translator) It was in many people's interest to kill Arafat. Some hoped to gain power after his death. Maybe there's also an international interest in his death.

HARRIS: Israeli? Palestinian? American?

ABDULRAHMIN: (Through translator) Maybe all of those, plus all of them together.

HARRIS: The Palestinian committee investigating Arafat's death is waiting for one more lab report - from France, where Arafat died in a military hospital. Journalist Matthew Kalman isn't sure how far the Palestinian investigators will be willing to go.

KALMAN: When Tawfik Tirawi, who's heading the official Palestinian investigation, says that the aim is find the tool - and by that, he means the person who delivered this deadly dose to Arafat - then the only direction that leads him is directly back into the central circle surrounding Yasser Arafat, and many of those people are still in position today.

HARRIS: At least one Palestinian walking on Arafat Square this morning hopes officials follow all leads, wherever they go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For the truth. It's important for the truth.

HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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