Ariel Sharon’s many attempts to assassinate Yasser Arafat

The Washington Post reports: On the evening of Oct. 12, 2004, Yasser Arafat, the flamboyant, autocratic and inscrutable chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, sat down for dinner at his besieged compound in Ramallah in the West Bank. And so began one of the great medical mysteries in the modern Middle East.

A month later, Arafat was dead in a French hospital.

By natural causes? Or was it a murder most foul? Theories have swirled in the past nine years that Arafat was assassinated, perhaps poisoned — by rivals, by his inner circle, by Israeli agents.

On Wednesday, a final 108-page report by a team of Swiss experts revealed that tests on Arafat’s exhumed remains and possessions — a shaft of his hair, a urine stain on his underwear, a woolen cap — “moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-­210,” a highly radioactive substance 250,000 times as toxic as cyanide.

“This has confirmed all our doubts,” Arafat’s widow, Suha, told the Reuters news agency. “It is scientifically proved that he didn’t die a natural death, and we have scientific proof that this man was killed.”

Suha Arafat, speaking in Paris, called her husband’s death “a real crime, a political assassination.”

She did not name any suspects, but if her husband truly was killed, there would be many. He had myriad enemies — not least the Israeli government.

Jeffrey Goldberg, responding to Israel’s swift denial that it was responsible for Arafat’s death, writes: [T]he Israeli government should remember that it was the official policy of several past Israeli leaders to try to kill Arafat, who was the head of a terrorist organization that had murdered many Israeli civilians. I had several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principal Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, and today’s report sent me back to a profile I wrote of Sharon that appeared 12 years ago in the New Yorker. The profile was published just as Sharon was running, successfully, for prime minister. Here’s what I wrote directly on the subject of assassination:

Sharon was blunt on the subject of Arafat. “He’s a murderer and a liar,” he said. “He’s an enemy. He’s a bitter enemy.” Sharon has devoted a great deal of time and energy to Arafat. By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly. “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort — and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader — to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.”

In other conversations with me in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sharon, who has been in a stroke-induced coma for more than seven years, did not resort to euphemism. Once, he described to me how Israel would have been better off had Arafat been killed by the Israeli army in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an invasion that Sharon led. It was, he said, “a missed opportunity.”

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2 thoughts on “Ariel Sharon’s many attempts to assassinate Yasser Arafat

  1. pabelmont

    I would guess that you cannot buy polonium-210 at the pharmacy. I would expect that only nuclear powers (or countries with advanced neclear research establishments) could make it, contain it, transport it, administer it to a single person, etc. If I’m right, this suggests that the murder was done by Israel rather than by Oalestinians (or others).

  2. Paul Woodward

    Ninety seven percent of the world’s legal polonium-210 (210Po) production occurs in Russia in RBMK reactors. About 85 grams (450,000 Ci) are produced by Russia annually. According to Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state atomic energy agency, RosAtom, all of it goes to U.S. companies through a single authorized supplier.

    Akiva Eldar (2006): British citizens who came into contact with former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko are not advised to get too close to Michael Karpin’s recent book, “The bomb in the basement: How Israel went nuclear and what that means for the world” (Simon and Schuster). On the other hand, the book is recommended to Israeli citizens troubled by the government’s nuclear ambiguity and the danger of a radioactive leak. Karpin reveals in the book that polonium 210, the radioactive substance used to poison Litvinenko, killed several Israeli scientists a few decades ago. The Weizmann Institute scientists were exposed to the dangerous substance, which was found at a number of London sites the late spy had visited, as well as in three British Airways planes that flew the Moscow-London route.

    According to the book, in 1957 a leak was discovered at a Weizmann Institute laboratory operated by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Traces of polonium 210 were found on the hands of Prof. Dror Sadeh, a physicist who researched radioactive materials, as well as on various objects in the professor’s home. The AEC handled the accident with deep secrecy. After a short investigation, whose results were not presented to even the workers, the lab was hermetically sealed for several months.

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