By Yousef Munayyer
Al Jazeera dropped a bombshell last week when it revealed the results of a 9-month investigation suggesting the late Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, could have been poisoned with a radioactive isotope, Polonium-210.
(Full Disclosure: I am not a physician, nor a clinical toxicologist for that matter, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Thus, I’ll defer to scholarly research from the field when it comes to the science involved here)
Here is what we know: Arafat was in good health for his age prior to falling violently ill. A few weeks after the onset of this illness he was dead. Several elements in Arafat’s medical circumstances are consistent with Polonium poisoning. Sudden onset of severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea without fever, which Arafat experienced, is the typical first stage of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) which can result from the ingestion of Polonium-210. It should be noted here that the vast majority of cases of ARS are results of accidents or exposure to radiation, not necessarily ingestion. The cases of ingestion of radioactive materials are (thankfully) few but the medical understanding of expected biological behavior is likewise limited.
Polonium-210 became best known after the poisoning and death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent turned dissident, in 2006. The medical literature on polonium poisoning, particularly from ingestion, grew significantly after the Litvinenko episode (two years after Arafat’s death).
Along with the first phase of ARS, other indicators of polonium poisoning were also present in Arafat’s case. The second or latent phase or ARS is a period during which many patients appear to recover briefly for a period of days or even weeks before turning again for the worst. This is precisely what happened with Arafat.
From there, the next phase of ARS is the nastiest and it can involve one of four pathways including the Bone Marrow, the Gastrointestinal System (GI), the Nervous System and Cutaneous Radiation Syndrome (Skin deformities and in the case of Polonium ARS only; possible hair loss). One study notes that ingestion of Po-210 can cause similar but not identical symptoms to other forms of ARS. In short, the above means that Arafat’s symptoms and Litvenanko’s symptoms do not have to be identical for both of them to have suffered from a polonium poisoning induced form of ARS. Dismissing the possibility of Polonium poisoning in Arafat based on disparities from some of Litvinenko’s symptoms is like dismissing oranges as fruit because they don’t taste like apples. There are simply too few data points on record of Po-210 ingestion to make such sweeping generalizations.
Further, not only can symptoms vary between ARS patients, they also vary depending on dosage and can appear at varied times from the initial exposure. Reports on Arafat’s bone marrow, for example, were not consistent with ARS but as one study puts it, that could be because “death usually supervenes before the major peripheral blood consequences of bone marrow depression are observed.” It goes on to state that “scalp epilation,” or hair loss, as in the case of Litvinenko, “occurs relatively late.” It could simply be the case that the much older Arafat died before the manifestation of other indicators, particularly if the dosage varied.
We also know that after falling ill Arafat suffered from Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a blood disorder that is diagnosed after thrombocytopenia (another of Arafat’s symptoms so severe he needed transfusions) which is one of the effects of Polonium poisoning on the blood and can lead to multiple organ failure. After eliminating common causes of DIC including known viral, bacterial and cancer-related possibilities, doctors were baffled by what caused it.
DIC, it turns out, is noted in multiple studies as a possible complication of ARS. Coma and Jaundice, two other features of Arafat’s final medical condition before death, are noted characteristics in multiple organ involved ARS.
Several of Arafat’s symptoms are consistent with polonium poisoning but others are not. Nothing can be conclusively determined without an autopsy and even then we may never know for sure.
What we do know for sure, however, is that Swiss scientists found unexplained elevated levels of Po-210 in biological stains on Arafat’s belongings that were not naturally occurring. An unavoidable question is outstanding: How did it get there?
The answer to this question is one of two conspiracy theories. The first is that the Po-210 was planted in the specimens by the journalists in collusion with Arafat’s widow. This would involve obtaining the radioactive material, which can only be produced in nuclear facilities, calculating the precise microscopic amounts in a magnitude that would correspond to the expected level at a fraction of nanograms and then inserting it into the biological stains (which we know were Arafat’s thanks to DNA testing) and not anywhere else on his items. This would also have to involve advanced scientific collusion as well to pull the wool over the well-trained eyes of the scientists conducting the analysis.
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The second conspiracy theory is infinitely more plausible and straightforward; Arafat was poisoned by Polonium-210 and that is the explanation for the ‘mystery illness’ that baffled dozens of doctors in 2004.
Israel becomes a prime suspect for a number of reasons. First, Israel has overtly and covertly assassinated countless Palestinian leaders. Second, Israel demonstrated not only the will and capacity to kill Palestinian leaders but has used poisons in the past to do so. Third, Israel has the capacity to produce Polonium-210 as well as an array of other radioactive elements in its nuclear facilities. Finally, Israel’s Prime Minister stated he would ‘remove’ Arafat to “create the conditions for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership with which it will be possible to make real peace” and made it explicitly clear that assassinating Arafat was an option a few months before Arafat fell ill. Could someone else be behind it? Perhaps, of all the parties or players to suspect, only Israel has both the advanced nuclear capacity to create Po-210 and the motive to do away with Arafat
So is the first scenario possible? Sure, I suppose. I suppose it is also possible for me (I’m 5’9”) to beat Lebron James in a Slam Dunk contest. Both of these feats are equally ‘realistic’.
Betting men should put their money on scenario two. As Israel demonstrated the history, capacity and declared intent to carry out such an act.
If a post-mortem autopsy lends further evidence to suggest Arafat was in fact assassinated, it would likely kick more dirt on the grave of the long dead peace process no one should bother to exhume.
After all, when it comes to the peace process we all know the cause of death: unending Israeli colonization—perhaps they will call the next settlement Polonium Adumim.
This article originally appeared on Newsweek/The Daily Beast.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.