Palestinians prepared to launch investigation into what really killed Yasser Arafat

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Yasser Arafat is buried at this mausoleum in Palestine. His body may be exhumed to determine whether he was poisoned to death. (Photo by OneArmedMan via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Palestinian Authority says it is willing to have the body of the late Yasser Arafat exhumed to investigate the cause of his death.

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The announcement follows revelations in a new Al Jazeera documentary that point to the possibility that Arafat was poisoned.

In late 2004, Arafat fell ill and was flown from the West Bank city of Ramallah to a hospital in France, where he died about two weeks later.

Arafat’s widow, Suha, provided Al Jazeera with some of the personal affects of the late Palestinian leader. Swiss scientists conducted tests and they say that some of Arafat’s clothes contained high levels of the radioactive element polonium. The implication is that Arafat might have been murdered.

On a sidewalk, not far down the road from Yasser Arafat's tomb, a 75-year-old shopkeeper named Naim Hamad Musa sat holding a set of prayer beads. He reflected on the legacy of the man Palestinians see as the founding father of their national struggle.

“We love him so, so much,” Musa said. “He was a great leader.”

Musa said the investigation into the true cause of Arafat’s death should continue.

“We have to find out who killed him,” he said. “Was it Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad? Was it an Arab intelligence service? We need conclusions.”

But conclusions have been elusive.

Swiss scientists told Al Jazeera they can't know if polonium was the cause of Arafat's death, without doing more tests.

Suha Arafat objected to an autopsy when her husband died in 2004. Now, she wants Arafat’s body to be exhumed for more testing.

Officials with the Palestinian Authority say they would agree to that. But it might have to wait for an international inquiry.

Fatah party spokesman Mahmoud Labadi said he has long believed Arafat was murdered.

“This was a crime committed by someone,” Labadi said during an interview in his Ramallah office. “Of course, we need evidence to say that it is Israel, but when you ask in an investigation, who takes benefit of this?? Nobody has an interest in killing Yasser Arafat except Israel. Nobody,” he said.

Israel rejects any allegations that it was involved in a plot to poison Arafat. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government official told the BBC that the Palestinian Authority holds all the medical records on Arafat. If it wants full transparency, he said, these records should be made public.

The New York Times says it reviewed a leaked copy of the those records in 2005. And the documents showed that Arafat died from a stroke brought on by an infection. But the cause of that infection was unknown. The French doctors also found no poisons in Arafat’s body.

Asked why Palestinian officials have not conducted a more thorough investigation into the cause of Arafat’s death over the years, Labadi dismissed the implication that there’s been any cover up.

“It’s maybe carelessness, neglect, laziness,” Labadi said. “So, nobody is hiding or trying to hide anything.”

But as far as most Palestinians are concerned, Arafat did not die of natural causes. And no investigation, no matter how thorough, will change people’s minds.

Palestinian newspaper columnist Muhannad Abdel Hamid said he's not against getting to the bottom of the mystery about Arafat’s death. But he said the issue could very well stir up dangerous divisions in Palestinian society.

“There is real tension right now between the Palestinian Authority and the public,” Abdel Hamid said.

Just this week, there were two days of anti-government demonstrations in Ramallah.

“In such an atmosphere,” he added, “bringing up the issue of Arafat’s death could further inflame the situation and lead to a crisis.”

There are also questions about why Arafat’s widow — and Al Jazeera — would choose now to raise these questions, Abdel Hamid said.

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