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Experts: Radioactive residues on Arafat's clothing no proof of poisoning

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After the media excitement over the allegation polonium poisoning might have caused Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, some sober and cogent analysis is debunking the thrust of the al-Jazeera report - that the radioactive levels that were reportedly found recently on Arafat's personal effects, could have come from Arafat himself.

Dr. Ely Karmon, of the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya's Institute for Counterterrorism, a specialist in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism, told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the half-life of the substance would make it impossible for polonium to have been discovered at such high levels after eight years.

According to the al-Jazeera report, polonium has a half-life of 138 days, "meaning that half of the substance decays roughly every four-and-a-half months."
And yet, eight years after Arafat's death, the Swiss scientists reported finding polonium levels of 54 millibecquerels (mBq) and 180 millibecquerels on his belonging, considered to be high levels.
"If it had been used for poisoning, minimal levels should be seen now. Yet much higher levels were found. Someone planted the polonium much later," Karmon said.
"Because of the half-life of the substance, the conclusion is that the polonium is much more fresh," he added.

Mark Memmott, a journalist for American radio network NPR, has raised similar doubts in a story filed on Thursday.

Here's what we don't get [about al-Jazeera's theory]:
Why would the polonium-210 levels still be so high if Arafat had been poisoned with the radioactive element so long ago?

Meanwhile, in a post Thursday on the Foreign Policy website, Hussein Ibish rejected the al-Jazeera report out of hand and questioned the motivation behind the investigation.

There are at least three gaping holes in the al-Jazeera story that render it, in effect, little more than baseless, and indeed irresponsible, speculation. 
First and most importantly, Arafat's symptoms are well documented and completely inconsistent with 210PO (polonium) poisoning. Unlike [poisoned KGB operative Alexander] Litvenenko, he didn't lose his hair and his bone marrow was found to be undamaged. He also staged at least one brief recovery, which wouldn't be possible in the case of polonium poisoning...
Second, the Swiss lab report on which the Al Jazeera story relies, clearly states that its findings are inconclusive and provide no basis for concluding polonium poisoning, especially since his symptoms were inconsistent with that. The report also states that further testing may reveal that the 210PO levels detected may prove to have been naturally occurring, albeit unusually high.
Third, the provenance of the items in question is not well-established, and therefore the relationship between the 210PO levels discovered on them and Arafat's condition is very much in doubt. Even an exhumation of the body, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly considering, may not prove conclusive, as 210PO has a very short half-life of 137 days.
[In addition], the timing of the Al Jazeera story is extremely suspicious. The PA leadership is currently embroiled in a series of controversies...
Al Jazeera has a history of trying to discredit the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, most notably with the release of a dump of often undated and unsigned documents from the PLO negotiation support unit in January 2011. The current report, which fails to make a convincing case that Arafat was killed by 210PO poisoning, seems to be only the latest iteration of this pattern.

As Ibish noted, in their rush to endorse al-Jazeera's investigation, many news reports have omitted to mention that the lab scientists find problematic the premise that Arafat had died of radiation poisoning, as he had failed to show symptoms.

Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics spokesman Darcy Christen told reporters:

 

"We have never said there was Polonium poisoning. Yes, we found Polonium 210 in more elevated levels than what one might have expected, but the clinical description of Chairman Arafat's symptoms prior to his death is not compatible with Polonium poisoning."

 

In Israel this week, there was virtual unanimity among analysts that it was very unlikely Israel had killed Arafat, whether by polonium or other means.
Haaretz columnists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff - who have done extensive investigating into Arafat's death themselves over the years - were among them.

 

Every senior Palestinian official interviewed in the [al-Jazeera] investigation claimed that Israel poisoned Arafat. This claim requires special examination, of course, because of the political implications. Nevertheless, everyone we spoke to on the Israeli side has vehemently denied the accusations. Not with a smile, nor even with half of a smile. Everybody, without exception, claimed that this was complete nonsense.
With all these accusations, we must remember that in November 2004, there was no Israeli interest in killing Arafat. Abu Amar (Arafat), by the way, was isolated, weak, and in many ways, irrelevant. In addition, a former Israeli official emphasized that the Israeli government had promised the American administration not to turn him into a shaheed (martyr).

 

Ynet's Alex Fishman agreed:

It should also be noted that on the eve of his death, Arafat was perceived by Israel's defense establishment as a first-rate public relations asset: He was unstable, confused, isolated in his headquarters and not functioning well.
At that point, Israel had no interest in assassinating him.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials found the claims preposterous, according to a report by the Chinese news outlet Xinhua.

"All of a sudden, Suha's checking her wash basket and discovered clothes that weren't washed for eight years," said Deputy Spokesman of Israeli Foreign Ministry Paul Hirschson.
"Suddenly, out of nowhere a couple of garments turn up; we test them, and presto! There's Polonium," he said.

Moreover, Daniel Goldstein at Israel's GLORIA Centre notes that the Palestinians have accused Israel of killing Arafat many times over the past eight years. The surprise, he said, is that this time the story is getting traction.

Given the frequency of the accusation, according to the Xinhua story, Israeli officials said the real question was al-Jazeera's motives at this time.

"The real question is, why is al-Jazeera doing this?" the [An Israeli Government source] asked on Thursday, noting that "it's an opportunity to be nasty to the Israelis and accuse us of doing horrible things."

Ahron Shapiro

 

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