French probe deepens confusion over Arafat death

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JERUSALEM (AP) – A French murder probe into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat prompted an Israeli denial of responsibility on Wednesday and renewed doubts that Palestinians would stick to a halfhearted pledge to exhume Arafat’s body.

Arafat’s death eight years ago in a French hospital has remained a long-running mystery for many, driven by murky but persistent conspiracy theories that he had cancer, AIDS or was poisoned.

His successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reluctantly agreed to exhume the former leader’s remains for an autopsy this summer after new evidence prompted Arafat’s widow to seek a criminal investigation. Any finding of wrongdoing would be an embarrassment to Palestinians, who were most in contact with Arafat before he fell ill.

Officials say Abbas went forward under public pressure, despite hesitation about the public spectacle of digging up the body from the massive mausoleum outside Palestinian headquarters in the West Bank. But the autopsy has been on hold while authorities seek Suha Arafat‘s approval.

Arafat, who was 75, died at a French military hospital in November 2004, two weeks after he was rushed there from his West Bank headquarters with a mysterious illness. He died of a stroke, but the underlying reasons for his condition have been constantly debated.

The theory that he was poisoned by Israelis -a charge the Israelis vociferously deny – has been popular in the Arab world. The idea gained steam in July after a Swiss lab found traces of Polonium-210, a rare and lethal radioactive isotope, on Arafat’s clothing.

“Israel did not have any hand in this,” Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli official at the time of Arafat’s death, said in a radio interview Wednesday, even while calling Arafat “one of Israel’s worst enemies.”

Suha Arafat, who is a French citizen, asked for an investigation after the new findings; a French court announced the probe this week. She declined to comment on details of the case when reached Wednesday at her home in Malta, saying only “It’s in the hands of the judiciary.”

The office of her lawyer, Pierre Olivier Sur, said Suha Arafat wants the probe to be completely independent, though it said it did not see how any inquiry could proceed without an exhumation and autopsy. The lab that discovered the polonium and which is expected to conduct the autopsy, the Institute of Radiation Physics, confirmed that the autopsy plans are now on hold.

“We are ready to move and can therefore respond quickly to the confirmed invitation of the Palestinian National Authority,” said spokesman Darcy Christen. “Mrs. Arafat wishes, however, that any act of investigation is done in collaboration with the French courts. However, the French procedure has just begun.”

The Swiss lab said the traces of Polonium-210 it discovered were not conclusive proof that Arafat was poisoned.

And experts are divided over whether the isotope could even be detected in a sample that old: Polonium-210, which is found in small concentrations in the Earth’s crust and is produced artificially in nuclear reactors, breaks down quickly.

Tawfik Tirawi, the head of the official Palestinian investigation committee into Arafat’s death, welcomed the new French involvement and said Palestinians were determined to get to the bottom of the case. But he questioned Suha Arafat’s position.

“Suha Arafat agreed to have the Swiss lab come here, and I’m surprised that she has now put it off. She holds responsibility for that,” Tirawi said.

Arafat was the face of the Palestinian struggle for independence for four decades, rising to prominence as an exiled guerrilla leader and then returning to the Palestinian territories to lead an autonomy government after reaching an interim peace deal with Israel. He remains a beloved figure in Palestinian society. His picture, usually wearing his trademark black and white headdress, can still be seen on billboards, in people’s homes and in government offices.

But later in his life, Israel viewed him as an obstacle to peace, holding him responsible for the bloody Palestinian uprising that broke out in September 2000. In his final years, Israel confined him to his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Raanan Gissin, a confidant of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that as the fighting raged on, Israeli officials often discussed the possibility of assassinating Arafat. But he said Sharon always rejected that route, believing it would only lead to further bloodshed.

“The idea was not to kill Arafat, but to change the Palestinian leadership,” Gissin told The Associated Press. Israel “never touched a hair on his head.”

In the radio interview, Weisglass, who served as Sharon’s chief of staff, rejected  any suggestion that Arafat was poisoned and said that Israel moved quickly to get the Palestinian leader proper medical care at the end of his life.

“We did not physically hurt him when Arafat was in his prime … so all the more so we had no interest in this kind of activity when he was politically sidelined,” he told the Army Radio station.

Weisglass said that he was dining in Brussels in October 2004 with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, when the diplomat’s cell phone rang call close to midnight: Then-Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was on the line saying that Arafat needed immediate medical attention at a Ramallah hospital. Would Israel allow him to leave his compound?

Weisglass said he called Sharon at his home and he immediately approved the request.

The next morning, Weisglass said, the European diplomat called him to say Palestinian doctors said Arafat was very ill and needed to be evacuated for better treatment in Europe.

Weisglass said Sharon consulted with intelligence officials, and immediately permitted Arafat to travel to France to avoid any appearance that Israel might be exacerbating his illness.

Arafat, 75, died about two weeks later in the hospital outside of Paris. According to French medical records, he had suffered inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC. But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which can be caused by many factors including infections, colitis and liver disease.

Weisglass said medical assessments immediately after his death found no traces of poison on his body.

Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, who was the army’s chief of staff when Arafat died, also denied involvement Wednesday. “It sounds to me like Arabian tales from One Thousand and One Nights,” Yaalon said.

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