The remains of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed on Tuesday, eight years after his death, with experts set to test for evidence he was poisoned by polonium.
Shortly after the grave was briefly opened for forensic experts to take samples, an official warned that if there was evidence that Arafat was poisoned, the Palestinian leadership would petition the International Criminal Court to open an investigation.
The exhumation process began before dawn and was carried out in secrecy, with the grave carefully shielded from the public eye.
“At 5:00 am (0300 GMT), experts began to remove the stones and began opening the grave in an orderly fashion,” a Palestinian source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Only a Palestinian doctor was allowed to directly touch the remains and remove the samples, but the process was carried out in the presence of the Swiss, Russian and French experts, he said.
Palestinian officials had originally planned a military ceremony as his remains were reburied, but a source told AFP that the samples were collected without removing the body from the grave, so no reburial was necessary.
“The samples were taken from Arafat’s remains from inside the grave and the samples were then transferred to the mosque,” the source said, referring to a building adjacent to the Muqataa presidential complex in Ramallah.
Speaking shortly after the exhumation process was completed, Tawfiq Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian investigation into Arafat’s death, said Ramallah would petition the International Criminal Court in The Hague if it found proof that the veteran leader was poisoned.
“If it is proved that Arafat was poisoned, we will go to the international court,” said Tirawi, referring to the ICC, while stressing that nothing would be done until the results were available, which was likely to take several months.
The ICC can only open an investigation if it is asked to do so by the UN Security Council or by a recognised state, with the Palestinians poised to seek an upgrade in their UN status later this week.
Should they successfully win the upgrade at the General Assembly on Thursday, as expected, they will apply to become party to the Rome Statute, after which they would be able to petition the ICC.
“This would be the first case for Palestine after getting international recognition as a (UN) non-member state,” Tirawi said.
The samples taken Tuesday will be flown to laboratories in Paris, Geneva and Moscow with the results expected within several months.
The samples are to be tested for polonium as part of a new investigation into whether Arafat was poisoned after evidence emerged that abnormal amounts of the radioactive substance were found on his personal effects.
Polonium was the substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
The revelation, which was made in a documentary screened by Al-Jazeera news channel in July, prompted France to open a formal murder inquiry into his death a month later at the request of his widow, Suha Arafat.
A team of French investigating magistrates arrived in Ramallah on Sunday, followed by a group of Swiss and Russian experts a day later.
Arafat died at a French military hospital near Paris on November 11, 2004, with doctors unable to say what killed him. At the time, an autopsy was never carried out — at his widow’s request.
The veteran leader’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa opposed the exhumation process, saying it would desecrate the grave and was unlikely to reveal new information.
And some experts have even questioned whether anything conclusive will be found because polonium has a short half-life.
Jean-Rene Jourdain of the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), said it would take weeks of analysis to be sure that the traces were man-made polonium rather than chance elements of a naturally-occurring polonium.
“Even if traces of polonium are found, it doesn’t mean that they are man-made,” he told AFP.
Israel has denied any involvement in Arafat’s death and dismissed the probe as irrelevant.