Al Jazeera published a report Wednesday based on an extensive scientific investigation of the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat. Though he was 75 years old when he died, many noted the marked deterioration in his appearance in his final weeks and speculated that he was poisoned or that he had AIDS. An Israeli journalist who interviewed Ariel Sharon noted that the Israeli leader refused to deny Israeli involvement in Arafat’s demise:
[Maariv journalist Uri] Dan reveals a little and conceals much when he hints that Arafat’s death was not caused by any illness. He himself suggested to Sharon that Arafat be captured and brought to trial in Jerusalem, like Eichmann, but Sharon reassured him that he was dealing with the problem in his own way. Then Arafat fell ill, was flown to Paris for treatment and died. Was Sharon involved? This is what Dan wrote then in Maariv — that in the history books, prime minister Ariel Sharon will be remembered as the man who eliminated Yasser Arafat without killing him. Let every reader figure it out for himself.
Now, a team of researchers has tested personal artifacts provided by Arafat’s widow, Suha, and found highly elevated doses of polonium (in some cases 10 times the expected dose) in many of these objects. They found a type of polonium not occurring naturally that could only be produced in a nuclear reactor. Suha Arafat is asking that the PA exhume her husband’s body and test it for polonium. What they find will determine whether the element killed him or not.
This news returns us to 2006, when elements of the Russian intelligence services arranged to poison a former agent, Alexander Litvinenko, with polonium. It was the first known instance in which someone was killed by polonium poisoning. If the Al Jazeera report is correct, then the Russian may have to cede pride of place to Arafat, who would now become the unfortunate record-holder.
Next, we should turn to speculation about who might have been able and willing to kill the Palestinian leader. There are many who fit some of those criteria but few that fit all. The Israelis leap out in that regard. Not only does Israel have a highly developed research capability in chemical and biological warfare, its scientists and intelligence services would have the technical abilities to mount such an attack. It also has the nuclear reactor in Dimona necessary to produce the poison. In fact, the Al Jazeera article notes that two Israeli nuclear technicians are rumored to have died from accidental polonium exposure.
I got more than a jolt when I read my 2007 blog post about Uri Dan’s interview above in which I wrote:
I remember several years ago when Ehud Olmert was Sharon’s right-hand man and threatened Arafat with assassination in the pages of the Jerusalem Post. I had the strange feeling that if Sharon & Co. were willing to threaten to do it they were fully prepared to do it. Now, it appears they figured out a way to do it that would eliminate their fingerprints. Perhaps a polonium cocktail?
Polonium, though rare, is used in some industrial processes. So it’s possible to secure such material. Once you have it, you only have to get access to the victim through poisoning his food or some other material that he might ingest. Israel would, of course, have any number of means to gain such access, as would some Palestinians, though the latter wouldn’t have the technical ability to make, secure, or administer polonium. Israel could have had a double agent within Arafat’s entourage or it could’ve introduced the poison without any Palestinian knowing what it had done.
Well before Arafat died, Sharon’s chief lieutenant, Ehud Olmert, threatened to assassinate the Palestinian, as I mentioned in my earlier quoted post. Sharon, as Haaretz noted, looked like the cat that swallowed the canary when Dan asked about killing the Palestinian. Israel was highly motivated to kill him. In addition, it had a highly adept knife fighter, Meir Dagan, leading the Mossad at the time. Such a task would’ve likely challenged his sense of mission for his agency.
If Israel did it, it would’ve made some of the following calculations before doing so: polonium would be an attractive method since it would’ve been at the time entirely unknown as a method of poisoning. This means it would be difficult to prove what killed Arafat. In the unlikely event that someone did, it would be difficult to trace back the murder material to Israel. Chances of exposure in 2004 were almost nil. Israeli intelligence also takes perverse pride in being the first to use various methods of what I call terror but which it would call protecting Israel’s interests. It would appeal to someone like Dagan to be the trailblazer in that regard, though the rest of the world might find this far less appealing.
If Israel was the culprit, it would mean that both Israeli and Russian intelligence services were experimenting and perfecting such means of targeting and eliminating their enemies. I have not heard of any such U.S. program, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there was one. Indeed, Al Jazeera refers to a U.S. study on the effects of polonium poisoning.
Might I ask a naive question: How in God’s name can any nation justify experimenting with such weapons? Let’s call this what it is: state terror. Nations, except Israel, rarely assassinate heads of state of their political enemies. To those who might argue that Arafat was not a head of state, perhaps that might be true as far as Israel is concerned. But the rest of the world recognized Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people and a head of state in everything but name.
Remember too that Israel has pioneered the use of cyberwarfare (Flame, Stuxnet, Duqu, etc.) in its battle against Iran’s nuclear program. Where many nations have trod very carefully, Israel has charged in, eager to explore weapons that might wreak havoc on its enemies.
Israel also has a history of using poisons and biological agents against its enemies. That includes the near-assassination of Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997 by Mossad agents who sprayed levofentanyl into his ear and the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabouh in Dubai in 2010, in which succinylcholine was injected into him, immobilizing him as he was suffocated.
To be fair, anyone believing the assassination/poisoning argument would have to argue that the artifacts tested couldn’t have been contaminated by polonium after Arafat died. But given how rare the element is, I think contamination is almost impossible.
Again, if this speculation is correct, it would mean that Israel was the first nation known to have used polonium as a lethal weapon. It would mean Israel is again a pioneer, though not in the same sense that early Zionism saw its young followers as pioneers on the land earning redemption by the sweat of their brow. This is something entirely different, and not what those early Zionist idealists had in mind as the apotheosis of their movement for Jewish self-sufficiency and self-determination.
If Israel did assassinate Arafat, along with all the other known acts of political assassination it has engaged in during its history, is it any wonder that an Israeli extremist would himself turn to such a method to rid Israel of its own head of state, Yitzhak Rabin? In other words, Rabin’s murder is a manifestation of the chickens of Israeli political violence and state terror coming home to roost.
For a fascinating political and philosophical discussion of assassination and the various ways used to do it historically, read this aptly timed report from the Independent. In one of the most relevant passages to this discussion, Mohammad Aslan argues that such murders pose an extreme danger to the international order:
The arbitrary stretching of legal justifications for such assassinations, premised on what an individual country recognizes as self-defense, indirectly renders them to be bound by no limits — and by extension may serve as encouragement for other nations to follow suit, if they interpret their national security considerations being failed by international treaty and cooperation.
In this case, Israel would have felt little deterrence from acting, as it would have judged the Palestinians incapable of taking revenge if they discovered the real culprit. But as the Mossad discovered in the case of al-Mabouh, sometimes exposure itself can be the most damaging possible outcome. This may be the outcome of the Arafat case as well.
I have no doubt that Dagan and Sharon, if they ordered and carried out this killing, would have no problem taking credit for it. But the rest of the world may have a different moral standard, thank God.