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Arafat's Grave Opened, Samples Taken To Be Tested For Poison

Palestinians walking in front of a mural of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City earlier today.
Mohammed Abed
AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians walking in front of a mural of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City earlier today.

Claims that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned with a radioactive substance before his death in 2004 are now literally being put to the test.

Arafat's grave was briefly opened today so that samples could be taken from his remains.

According to The Associated Press, "the exhumation began before dawn, under the cover of huge sheets of blue tarpaulin draped over Arafat's mausoleum in his former government compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. By mid-morning, the grave was reclosed, said Tawfik Tirawi, a former Palestinian intelligence chief who heads the investigation into Arafat's death. ... The exhumation was attended by experts from Switzerland, France and Russia who will examine the samples in their home countries."

We reported back in July on the reports that traces of polonium-210 had reportedly been found on items, including clothing, that once belonged to Arafat and had been kept by his wife. That news from al-Jazeera prompted today's exhumation.

In November 2004, when Arafat died at a French hospital, the "immediate cause of death was a stroke, but the underlying reasons were unclear, leading to widespread belief in the Arab world that Israel poisoned the 75-year-old symbol of Palestinian nationalism," the AP says. It adds that "Israel has denied involvement in Arafat's death."

Reuters adds that there are reasons to doubt Arafat was poisoned with polonium and whether any traces would be left if he had:

"Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose all his hair.

"Eight years is considered the limit to detect any traces of the fast-decaying polonium and Lausanne hospital questioned in August if it would be worth seeking any samples, if access to Arafat's body was delayed as late as "October or November."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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