In recent news, the widow of the poor unfortunate old Arafat authorized the exhumation of his remains for further forensic testing. The rumor that he had been poisoned had never gone away. Arafat died in 2004, or was murdered, depending on which rumors you believe. So far, two forensic teams have completed investigations of this case. Swiss, Russian and French scientific teams gained access to the remains for independent analysis in November 2013.
According to Aljazeera, “Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.”
According to Reuters, “The French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried. The Swiss experts said on the contrary that the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.”
The French team found the radioactive gas radon on the outside of Arafat’s clothing. If, Reuters cited the French finding accurately, the French said they found “some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas,” there is no explanation for the phrase “some of the” unless there were also other sources of radioactivity.
Having the advantage of unlimited access to the results of the autopsy, which was conducted in Paris where Arafat died, the French said that Arafat died of a stroke which was a complication of a severe bacterial infection, which was the original 2004 finding. So, they ruled the cause of death to be illness.
Thorium and uranium decay byproducts include radium, and its decay product radon. Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Polonium is a radioactive metal found naturally in uranium and thorium ores.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Polonium-210 (Po-210) is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present … Because Po-210 is produced from the decay of radon-222 gas.”
This directly contradicts the Swiss opinion as reported by Reuters, that “the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.” If the Swiss were quoted accurately, that would represent a huge disconnect with physics.
Polonium is produced from the decay of radon, not the other way around, so radon is not “the smoking gun” for polonium poisoning.
On the other hand, if it is true that radon detected on the burial clothing was just the result of naturally occurring concentration, it would be unreasonable to expect French scientists to report an even tinier trace of polonium, a naturally occurring decay product.
So far, there is no news report that either Swiss or French have exchanged results of their independent investigations, why they did or didn’t attach any particular relevance to the radioactivity connection, or detailed reasons for their conclusions. The French report is still preliminary at this writing, because news of it was leaked.
A number of obvious questions seem to remain unanswered. There is no clear consensus whether the radiation source was polonium or radon; they attributed it only to naturally occurring radon where it collects in underground spaces such as tombs. In either case, radioactivity is hazardous to the health, and there is a huge discrepancy between the highly abnormal polonium concentration found by the Swiss, and naturally occurring levels of radon found by the French.
If the Swiss scientists identified polonium by a combination of chemical tests and spectroscopy, a mistaken identification seems extraordinarily improbable. Also, the idea that they could mistakenly measure an 18-times concentration of that metal is quite implausible.
Samples for the independent tests would have been taken at the same point in time. It would be difficult to hypothesize that one set of samples contained polonium and the other did not. It will be interesting to learn what Russian scientists find.
Signs of radiation sickness would, all other things being equal, strike the elderly or infirm first. Arafat was both. The effects of radiation exposure are cumulative, and can affect the immune system in many ways. The effect of even medical radiation dosages on the immune system is already well known in hospitals.
Following this line of logic, it would appear that, if a strong source of radiation was actually present in or on the ailing Arafat, a “bacterial infection” might easily have resulted.
Staph infections, for example, are frequently contracted right in the hospital. This hypothesis would argue strongly in favor of a murder verdict, not against the medical facilities, but on unknown persons who might have caused the hospital death through a hard-to-trace chain of events initiated by poisoning Arafat with a radioactive substance.
Analysis appears further complicated by ambiguous news reporting on such a highly technical scientific subject.
Finally, there’s the unresolved question of who might have murdered Arafat. For the foreseeable future, this is a cold case that will never be solved without new discovery.
The popular theory in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is that the Israeli Mossad was responsible for this. Arafat became an internationally respected leader and a stabilizing force in Palestine, after co-brokering the Camp David Accords with Prime Minister Rabin. Arafat was most heavily criticized by Islamists, PLO leftists and Hamas for being too lenient in negotiations with Israel. This would tend to place Israel lower on a theoretical list of suspects, and PLO dissidents and similar militant factions, relatively higher.
The device of polonium poisoning is also associated with a number of sensational assassinations in Northern Europe, suspected to be the work of Soviet or Russian agents. But since scientific experts cannot even agree on evidence for or against these theories in the mysterious Arafat affair, blame is usually attributed to the political motivations of the accuser. If Arafat died as a result of foul play, there does not yet seem to be compelling evidence for any particular cause or agency.
Alex Forbes, December 4, 2013
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