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What Killed Arafat? (Al Jazeera documentary)


As the Israel/Palestine peace process headed for a total impasse in 2004 Yasser Arafat suddenly fell mysteriously ill. It was convenient timing for Israel and the US, who felt that Arafat was their biggest obstacle, but nearly fifty doctors from around the world rushed to try and save him, testing for virtually every known disease. Despite their efforts he died within weeks and ever since it’s been an unsolved case. This riveting documentary with exclusive access follows Suha Arafat’s search for the truth and finds a complex mystery unfolding.

„This is not a medical issue, it is a political one“, says Omar Dakka. Once personal physician to Yasser Arafat, he is hesitant to discuss the precise circumstances surrounding the leader’s rapid and mysterious demise. Such trepidation and a frustrating reticence are common among the extended team of medical professionals who surrounded Arafat in his last weeks of life in 2004. French doctors refuse to speak to camera. One of his Tunisian doctors begs not to be drawn into it, „The truth is not with me…don’t involve me in such difficult issues.“ As the continuing controversy throws up suggestions of poison, international assassination and interference, Arafat’s doctors reluctance to speak openly begs the question; why?

The secrecy and doubt surrounding his death, is especially interesting considering the political factors at play in 2004. Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon said, „Anybody who is a threat to the Israeli people…I will remove him.“ At the same time president Bush was saying, „I will call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders.“ As Mohammed Rashid, former advisor to Arafat, points out, „It was clear that we were heading to a serious deadlock which could cost Arafat his life.“

In France despite a myriad of tests using the world’s most sophisticated equipment the cause of his illness remained unclear. Crucially however the French do not take samples for poison until four days after his arrival, three full weeks since symptoms began and most tellingly don’t perform tests for rare nuclear materials.. „If poisoning had to be suspected, the samples have to be collected very, very rapidly.“ Not only that but no autopsy was conducted.

Nearly nine years later tests on Arafat’s hair samples, provided by Suha, show traces of Polonium. In 2004, no doctor would have suspected its use as a poison, but two years later it was used to kill former Russian spy Alexandre Litvenko. But for definitive proof, it is necessary to go back to the urine samples taken at the time. But despite French law requiring samples are kept for ten years, Arafat’s samples were destroyed in 2008 after just 4 years. Despite the evidence stacking up, roadblocks are being erected all around the investigation.

„If I know that Yasser was poisoned, it will close a chapter…the enigma of his death.“ Suha tell us. As murder looks like an increasingly likely cause of death, Arafat’s body is being exhumed and the outcome of his autopsy could have huge political implications for the Middle East.