Killing Arafat

The investigation into the death of Yaser Arafat took a giant step forward the other day when Al Jazeera posted the report of a team of Swiss doctors that pretty conclusively shows he was poisoned. The big news, however, is that this was no ordinary poisoning: the agent was polonium-210, the same radioactive substance that knocked off Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko, an associate of the late Boris Berezovsky.

Arafat fell ill after eating a meal – a strong indication he was poisoned. At the time, however, his symptoms did not yield any definitive diagnosis, and no autopsy was done after his death a few weeks later.

If you take the time to read the 108-page Swiss report, compiled by a group of scientists with painstaking attention to detail, it is clear that Arafat was not only assassinated – he was murdered by the most exotic means one can possibly imagine. Polonium-210 isn’t something you can buy at the local drugstore: it’s a highly radioactive and volatile substance used in the construction of nuclear triggers, satellites, and specialized industrial processes. It is highly toxic: a few milligrams found in Arafat’s remains, and on his clothing, was enough to kill him. As David Barclay, a scientist specializing in forensics, told the Guardian newspaper:

"’The report contains strong evidence, in my view conclusive evidence, that there’s at least 18 times the level of polonium in Arafat’s exhumed body than there should be.’ He said the report represented ‘a smoking gun.’ Barclay said: ‘It’s what killed him. Now we need to find out who was holding the gun at that time,’ adding: ‘I would point to him being given a fatal dose. I don’t think there’s any doubt at all.’

So who did it?

To answer that question, another must be asked: how would one gain access to polonium-210? As author John Emsley put it to Chemistry World:

"With difficulty, unless you had access to a nuclear facility or were an authorized user, such as those who use it to generate thermoelectric power. (Polonium-210, half life 138 days, releases a lot of heat energy and a gram of the element can reach a temperature of 500 Celsius, which is why it has been used as an energy source in space). Around 100 grams a year of polonium-210 are manufactured in nuclear reactors, and this is done by bombarding bismuth with neutrons."

Only about 100 grams of polonium-210 are manufactured annually, most but not all of it in Russia. Deaths from polonium exposure are rare: aside from Litvinenko, the victims include Irene Joliot-Curie, daughter of the famous scientist Marie Curie, who was exposed when a test tube in her lab exploded. The only other known victims were some Israeli scientists who came into contact with the deadly substance in 1957, as the Israelis were working on their nuclear weapons program at the Weizmann Institute.

While the Russian FSB has been accused of poisoning Litvinenko, no real evidence for this assumption has ever been offered: indeed, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. At the time of his murder, Litvinenko was reportedly compiling dossiers on the crimes of various Russian Mafia figures. If we assume Russia was the source of the polonium that killed him, it’s far from impossible that his Mafioso enemies arranged to smuggle it out and have it dropped in the Russian exile’s teacup. In addition, there are reportedly "loose nukes" rolling around in the former Soviet Union, so much so that the US and Russia have set up a special commission to track them down: it’s not beyond the range of possibility that some of these materials have gotten into the wrong hands.

The same Russian Mafia that may very well have offed Litvinenko is a major presence in Israel. As the BBC reports:

"There are alarming signs that the Russian mafia has taken over the Israeli underworld and is using the country to launder its vast profits. A wave of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union has brought 750,000 newcomers to the Jewish state in the last decade. Amid the innocent exodus were Russian gangsters, many of whom are believed to have produced bogus proof of Jewish ancestry to enter the country.

"Police in Israel have been keeping around 30 organised key crime suspects under surveillance. Former police chief Asaf Hefetz says £2.5bn ($4bn) of organised crime money from the former Soviet Union has been invested in Israeli real estate, businesses and banks in the past seven years."

That was in 1998: since that time, as noted in this 2009 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, the Russian presence in Israeli organized crime has metastasized:

"Organized crime (OC) has longstanding roots in Israel, but in recent years there has been a sharp increase in the reach and impact of OC networks.

"… Israel’s multi-ethnic population provides a deep well of opportunity for Israeli OC to expand into new territory. Most Israeli crime families trace their roots to North Africa or Eastern Europe, and many of their Israeli operatives hold foreign passports allowing them to move freely in European countries, most of which participate in the visa waiver program with the United States.

"Approximately one million Russians moved to Israel following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Russian citizens no longer require visas to enter Israel. Many Russian oligarchs of Jewish origin and Jewish members of OC groups have received Israeli citizenship, or at least maintain residences in the country. Little is known about the full extent of Russian criminal activity in Israel, but sources in the police estimate that Russian OC has laundered as much as USD 10 billion through Israeli holdings. While most Israeli OC families are native-born and the stereotype that Russian immigrants tend to be mobsters is greatly overblown, indigenous OC groups routinely employ “muscle” from the former Soviet Union."

So the Russian Mafia is a real presence in Israel – the country that is also the chief suspect in the Arafat murder case.

Israel, of course, has a long history of assassinating Palestinian leaders, the most recent incident being the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. In a 2001 New Yorker profile of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Israeli prison guard and pro-Israel pundit Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:

"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 a recent piece, Goldberg avers Sharon once "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.’" Indeed, Sharon’s comments seem to be a swipe at the US, which reportedly vetoed Sharon’s assassination plan. Shortly before Arafat fell ill, Sharon publicly threatened to go back on his promise to the Americans not to move against the Palestinian leader:

"’I told the president the following. In our first meeting about three years ago, I accepted your request not to harm Arafat physically. I told him I understand the problems surrounding the situation, but I am released from that pledge.’ Mr. Sharon declined to elaborate and would not say how Mr Bush had responded. Last night the White House insisted that it was still opposed to Israel killing Mr. Arafat."

Six months later, Arafat contracted what was at the time a mysterious illness: he died a month later.

In a court of law, this alone would be enough to provoke considerable suspicion, if not an indictment for murder. In the court of international opinion, Israel already stands convicted – and with good reason.

Okay, but how did they do it?

Utilizing the Israeli wing of the Russian Mafia would be a way to distance Tel Aviv from the dirty deed, in much the same way as the US government used the American Mafia to try to assassinate Fidel Castro: "plausible deniability," and all that. And the links between the Israeli military-security establishment and the Israeli Mafia are there for all to see.

In a WikiLeaks cable dated May 15, 2009, our Tel Aviv embassy reported:

"As recently as March 2009, Zvika Ben Shabat, Yaacov Avitan, and Tzuri Roka requested visas to attend a ‘security-related convention’ in Las Vegas. According to local media reports, all three had involvement with OC. Post asked the applicants to provide police reports for any criminal records in Israel, but without such evidence there is no immediate ineligibility for links to OC. Luckily, all three have so far failed to return for continued adjudication of their applications. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that many known OC figures hold valid tourist visas to the United States and travel freely.” 

Who are these guys – aside from Israeli mobsters, that is? As I informed my readers in 2010, Zvika Ben Shabat is the President of H.A.Sh Security Group, an Israeli company that offers strong-arm security services worldwide. The Chairman of H.A.Sh Security is retired Major General Dan Ronen, former head of the operations division of Israel’s national police force, and subsequently commander of the northern region. As I asked in 2010:

"So why is one of Israel’s former top cops in a business relationship with a known member of the Israeli Mafia? Enquiring minds want to know!"

Perhaps now we are getting closer to finding out.

The Russian Mafia, including especially its Israeli branch, had reason enough to kill Litvinenko – and whoever was responsible for that murder is a logical suspect when it comes to Arafat’s assassination. After all, it isn’t every day someone is knocked off with a good dose of polonium-210.

These two murders have in common not only methodology but also motive, for the Israeli Mafia, and especially its dominant Russian component, is staunchly pro-Israel: their growing political influence has been reported in the Israeli and American media. As far back as 1977, Ehud Olmert testified before a closed hearing of a special commission looking into Israeli organized crime that the Mafia’s influence reached the highest levels of the defense establishment and the police. The links between ultra-nationalist former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and organized crime were enough to bring him down in 2012.

There is a certain symmetry in the idea that the gangsters who run the Israeli government would employ other gangsters to do their dirty work. If and when the truth comes out, Israel’s status as a gangster among nations will be indisputable.


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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].