The idea that polonium can hang around for over eight years is impossible. It’s science. But before getting to that part, why even assume polonium would be used as a poison? The idea links back to a couple of very high-profile Russian intelligence assassinations in 2006 – one of them in the heart of London, England. Without getting too garbled in the idea Middle Easterners are obsessed with conspiracy theories, the idea Israel assassinated Arafat near the end of the Second Intifada intrigues many Palestinians (and other Arabs). This theory fits into that framework.
Polonium Precedent: Russia
Russian Intelligence is suspected of assassinating former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London several years ago using the poison. Trace amounts of the element were found all over the victim’s residence and places he’d been. On November 1st, 2006, Litvinenko met with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun who allegedly carried out the poisoning. Investigations not long after the incident found traces in several locations the three men had been:
Detectives traced three distinct polonium trails in and out of London. The trails were left by Litvinenko, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. The patterns and levels of radioactivity they left behind suggested that Litvinenko ingested polonium, whereas Lugovoi and Kovtun handled it directly. The human body dilutes polonium before excreting it in sweat, which results in a reduced radioactivity level. There were also traces of Po-210 found at the “Hey Jo/Abracadabra” bar, “Dar Marrakesh” restaurant, and Lambeth-Mercedes taxis.
The fact it was tested at all is strange because eight years after a potent sample of polonium would have existed, its radioactive signature would be scant if not totally non-existent. The Journal Nature reported on the Al-Jazeera investigation in July:
François Bochud, director of the institute, told Nature that he did not expect to find any polonium in these items. But “we looked for it because of Litvinenko,” he says . . .
. . . A sample of urine-stained underwear showed polonium-210 radioactivity of 180 millibecquerels (mBq) — roughly one radioactive decay every 5 seconds. A control sample had a radioactivity of about 10 mBq. Bochud says that naturally occurring polonium-210 — resulting from the decay of radon gas, for example — normally causes a radioactivity of about 5 mBq per litre of urine.
Polonium-210 has a half-life of about 138 days, so about 20 half-lives had passed between Arafat’s death and the testing in Lausanne. This means that the amount of polonium in the samples — and in Arafat’s body — would have been about a million times greater when he died. Bochud and his colleagues calculated that Arafat would have had similar levels of polonium-210 in his body as Litvinenko.
So was Arafat poisoned? “We can’t conclude this,” says Bochud, although he adds that he is “50% sure”. It is conceivable that some external contamination could have caused the results they saw, he says.
But a lot of students of nuclear sciences consider that stretching the possibilities of modern detection equipment. Arafat also didn’t present with the symptoms that Litvinenko did. Elon Weintraub, Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry at UCLA, put this way:
“…when Litvinenko died, he had obvious symtoms of radiation sickness. You can see his hair fell out, his skin changed color, and he had severe intestinal distress. The triad of classic symtoms of alpha particle ingestion. That was why he was tested immediately. Arafat had the intestinal trouble, but he died of a liver failure induced stroke, and so far as I know, his hair did not fall out. Litvinenko was poisoned by far less polonium than the amount Arafat would have had.”
When I asked Weintraub about the Bochud’s explanation that the rate of decay fit with the idea Arafat had been in contact with the poison, he refuted the idea further:
This is true (what Bochud said); it would be a million times greater. But if you look at the amount in the lab report in the clothes, and multiply it by a million, you get MORE than Litvinenko. Also, that was found in Arafat’s CLOTHES. Litvinenko’s was found in him. Presumably, the amount in Arafat would be way way higher than in the clothes. (the emphasis “CLOTHES” was made by Mr. Weintraub himself in an email communication)
It’s a certainty that that much polonium would have certainly affected those around Yasser Arafat when (if) he actually ingested the polonium. Those around Litvinenko got sick on account of a much, much lower dosage than Arafat supposedly had. The idea that any evidence of such a poisoning is still that strong is just absurd.
Now for anyone weary of Al-Jazeera (especially for starting this new round of conspiracy theories), this report is a decent summary (and probably a good sampling of an objective Arab perspective) on the entire thing:
Some find it illogical Israel would have poisoned Arafat because evidence exists other diseases were ravaging his body at the time of his death, though it’s never been conclusive what exactly killed him. But at the age of 75 and blood disease possibly crippling him, would it have been worth it to assassinate a dying man?
Personally, there are a number of reasons why Israel would see a benefit to killing Arafat, but I can’t see Israel willing to risk its reputation to kill such a high-profile target. Israel’s capable of taking out major figures – supposedly Ahmad Jabari wasn’t the initial target of the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, rather head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Gaza’s de facto Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. But neither Haniyeh nor Khalid Meshaal represent the figure that Yasser Arafat had become by 2004. Perhaps in 1982, when Israel had invaded Lebanon to drive the PLO away from the Israeli border the IDF would have snagged the chance to get Arafat, but by 2004 he was of major notoriety and was perceived as the de facto #1 Palestinian (a head of state and national leader by other countries). Killing him would be akin to killing the President or Prime Minister of any other state (next to no one sees Haniyeh as a legitimate head of state).
If more evidence comes about to say Arafat was assassinated by Israel, let it be brought out. There might even be a chance that the Israeli Mossad or IDF poisoned him with polonium 210 – but it can’t be proven with the evidence they have. The traces of polonium are too miniscule.
Many People Still Won’t Care
The headline confirms a lot of self-reaffirming conspiracy theorists’ thoughts on what happened to Arafat. It’s not impossible a 75-year-old would be the target of assassination, but let’s also consider with this counter-evidence that Arafat was 75 years old. Now, that’s no death wish for anyone near, at or above the age of 75. I do pray human longevity gets longer in my lifetime to the benefit of everyone – but 75 is a realistic life expectation for many people around the world. It’s actually considered a healthy lifetime even when many of our living are soaring into their late 80s. The man might have died of natural causes – evidence of blood clot issues, liver failure and the almost certainly confirmed stroke Arafat suffered near the end of his life present us with an unfortunately common set of symptoms. While Litvinenko also suffered a stroke at the end, Arafat’s skin did not change color; Arafat’s hair did not fall out; his stroke wasn’t symptomatic of radiation poisoning.
But many people just won’t care. Many Palestinians want Arafat to have been assassinated. It serves Palestinian interests in the court of public opinion if people merely suspect Israel assassinated him. The idea here isn’t to prove anything but merely insinuate it. In my not-so-humble opinion, exhuming the man’s corpse to perpetuate this impossibility is a pathetic and disgusting move by the Palestinian Authority and anyone in the Palestinian corner of public opinion that sees this as necessary to prove “once and for all” how Arafat died – to put it in the words of the Al-Jazeera video report above.