Palestinian officials said Saturday they would exhume the body of their leader Yasser Arafat next week to see if Israel poisoned him with a radioactive isotope.
The controversial announcement came as a group of international experts arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah to take samples of the remains of the iconic leader’s bones and clothing for further study in European labs.
“The tomb will be opened on (Tuesday) and experts will take samples the same day within a matter of a few hours,” Tawfiq Tirawi told reporters in Ramallah.
He said a reburial ceremony would be held with full military honours later the same day in Arafat’s mausoleum at the heart of his Muqataa headquarters. Family members had earlier indicated the exhumation would probably go ahead on Monday.
Tirawi did not explain the apparent delay while stressing the procedure was painful but necessary to establish the truth of allegations that Israel may have poisoned the iconic Palestinian leader.
“November 27 will be one of the most painful days of my life for personal reasons as as well as patriotic, political and religious ones,” the Palestinian inquiry chief said.
“But it is necessary in order to get to the painful truth behind Yasser Arafat’s death.”
Tirawi added that members of his commission remained convinced that Israel had used the radioactive element polonium to kill Arafat — the same poison used to assassinate Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
“As patriotic Palestinians, we remain convinced that the Israelis assassinated president Arafat, and at the inquiry level, we have evidence leading in this direction,” he said.
Rumours and speculation have surrounded Arafat’s death ever since a quick deterioration of his condition saw him pass away at the Percy military hospital in suburban Paris in November 2004 at the age of 75.
French doctors were unable to say what killed him and a post-mortem was never performed.
But many Palestinians believed he was poisoned by Israel — a theory that gained ground in July when Al-Jazeera reported Swiss findings showing abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat’s personal effects.
France followed that up in late August by opening a formal murder inquiry at his widow’s request.
The experts who will be performing Tuesday’s operation under Palestinian command originate from Switzerland and Russia. They will accompany three French criminal investigators who will also be taking samples back home to Paris.
Tirawi said analysis of the samples will be conducted in all three countries.
But he added that any additional investigative work — including interviews with witnesses that may be required by Paris investigators — will be conducted either by or in the presence of Palestinian government representatives.
“All the testimonies of the Palestinians must be collected by Palestinian prosecutors in the presence of French investigators,” Tirawi said.
Experts believe that little will remain of Arafat’s tissue and that the scientists will only be able to secure samples of his bone — which may have degenerated into powdered form — or threads of his clothing.
Some experts have also questioned if anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short half-life and dissipates quicker than some other radioactive substances.