RAMALLAH, West Bank — Digging up Yasser Arafat’s bones may offer the best shot at learning if the legendary Palestinian leader was poisoned, as many of his old comrades-in-arms claim, but Palestinian officials signaled Thursday that they are not rushing into an autopsy.
Arafat’s 2004 death remains shrouded in mystery, and this week’s findings by Switzerland’s Institute of Radiation Physics, that clothes linked to Arafat contained an elevated level of a radioactive agent, have revived speculation about foul play.
However, the institute said more tests are needed, prompting Arafat’s widow Suha to demand that her husband’s remains, buried under a glass-and-stone mausoleum in his former West Bank compound, be exhumed.
Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed to an autopsy in principle, but it seems that a final decision will take time.
Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said Thursday that a team of experts would first be sent to Europe to learn more from the Swiss institute and from the French military hospital where Arafat died on Nov. 11, 2004.
Another possible hurdle is consent by Arafat’s close relatives, particularly his nephew Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations and, as head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, the custodian of his uncle’s memory.
This week, al-Kidwa seemed cool to the idea of an autopsy, telling the Arab TV station al-Jazeera that he believes the findings by the Swiss institute are sufficient proof of his long-standing claim that Arafat was poisoned.
Al-Kidwa has not been reachable for comment since then. Abbas has said he will order an autopsy only if the family is on board, but did not define whom he meant.
A full-blown investigation could lead to uncomfortable questions for the Palestinian leadership. Fingers have been pointed at Israel, but if an autopsy were to reveal that Arafat was indeed poisoned, the probe would also have to look at Palestinians who had access to him.
In the last three years of his life, Arafat was confined by Israel to his walled compound in the city of Ramallah. Arafat was seen by Israel and the U.S. as an obstacle to peace efforts and a sponsor of attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis.
Israel has emphatically denied a role in Arafat’s death. “Israel did not kill him, I say that with certainty,” Dov Weisglas, an aide to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Thursday.