Yesterday, the PA and scientists who studied the skeletal remains of Yasser Arafat confirmed (full scientific report here) that he was assassinated, poisoned with the highest dose of polonium ever recorded in a human being. The level was either 18 or 36 times the normal level (depending on how one counts a normal dose). The scientists rated the certainty of their findings on a scale of 1 to 6, giving the results a 5 score, meaning they had an 83% level of confidence.
The scientists tested bone fragments from his body and the surrounding soil, where bodily fluids had leaked, and all the results were uniform. Thus, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Yasser Arafat was murdered in 2004. He originally became sick four hours after eating a meal in his compound three weeks before his eventual death. So just as Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by KGB agents via a cup of tea drunk in a London tea shop, Arafat was poisoned through food he ate.
Now we must consider who had motive, means and opportunity. Let’s consider means first, because it severely narrows the number of suspects. The only countries in the world doing serious research into polonium are Russia, the U.S., and Israel. That means that the source of the poison was likely one of these places. I think we have to rule out the U.S. because it maintains strict control on access to such a highly dangerous and lethal substance.
We’ve seen that Russia murdered Litvinenko with polonium in 2006, so it’s entirely possible it provided the material to poison Arafat. To do so, it would’ve needed to supply the polonium to someone in Arafat’s inner circle. In other words, either the Russians or the PA would’ve wanted him dead and would’ve had to collaborate in order to kill him. This seems highly unlikely. The Russians had no motive to kill him or allow anyone else to do so. In fact, Russia has always been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
That leaves Israel. Later in this post, I’ll republish an earlier post I wrote about Israel’s checkered past concerning polonium research. It will attest that Israel’s top-secret chemical weapons facility at Nes Ziona has been experimenting with polonium since the late 1950s. It produces the radioactive element at its Dimona reactor. Clearly, Israel of all the other suspects had the means to kill Arafat.
Now let’s explore motive: in the period leading up to Arafat’s murder Israel had laid siege to him in his Ramallah fortress, the Muqata. Over time, the Israelis had destroyed more and more of the complex so that Arafat and his followers were holed up in a small space surrounded by ruins. All contact with the outside world including electricity, telephone and water had been severed. Though it might not have been clear at the time, the Israelis probably were trying to force him into exile. They may’ve believed he’d relent and leave the Muqata for exile. If so, they didn’t bargain for Arafat’s unrelenting steadfastness to the Palestinian cause and his leadership of it.
Haaretz journalist, Danny Rubinstein, who wrote an earlier book about Arafat, spent many hours interviewing Israelis officials. He says that they were obsessed with destroying Arafat’s political credibility and ultimately getting rid of him:
In the weeks and months before Arafat’s death, he [Rubinstein] said, people in Sharon’s inner circle talked constantly about how to get rid of him. “For me, it was very clear from the beginning. Every day this was the topic – should we expel him, or kill him, or bomb the Muqata [Arafat’s HQ]. It was obvious to me that they would find a way.”
In September, 2003, Israeli vice-premier Ehud Olmert had told Israel Radio virtually the same thing, that murder was definitely under consideration:
“Killing [him] is definitely one of the options.”
Even as unlikely a source as Jeffrey Goldberg provides supporting evidence confirming Sharon’s enthusiasm for offing Arafat:
[Those in] the Israeli government [who deny Israeli leaders wanted to kill Arafat] should remember that it was the official policy of several past Israeli leaders to try to kill Arafat…I had several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principal Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, and today’s report sent me back to a profile I wrote of Sharon that appeared 12 years ago:
“…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.’”
Ariel Sharon appointed Meir Dagan the new chief of the Mossad in 2002. He took over from the rather cerebral, Ephraim Halevy. Sharon essentially charged Dagan with being just the opposite: ruthless and conniving in fighting terror. He told him to “have a knife in his teeth” as he proceeded. So it seems that the two major culprits for this killing were Sharon, who ordered the hit; and Dagan who carried it out.
Killing the leader of an enemy people or nation, especially outside of wartime, should (and may) be a crime under international law. It should be beyond the pale for any civilized nation. We cannot bring Sharon up on war crimes charges, but we can Dagan. If there is any way to trace the polonium to its source.
I’ve reported separately that Ariel Sharon confidant, Uri Dan, wrote a book in which he claims Sharon once all but conceded he was responsible. This is from the Haaretz review of the book:
Dan…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.
What Dan meant is that Sharon arranged for Arafat to be murdered, but didn’t have to put a bullet into him to do it. The killing was done subtly, so that no fingerprints would be left. Certainly, knowing the ethical lows to which Israeli intelligence is willing to sink, the operation was a resounding success. Imagine: it took nine years for the world to learn the little it knows now. We may never be able to identify the smoking gun.
Though it would of course be helpful if we could (and we may yet as technology becomes ever more subtle and precise) know, it’s not necessary. Israel had the motive, means and opportunity.
I’ve offered ample motive in the above passages. Now let’s examine opportunity: Arafat was surrounded by a small Palestinian circle of those he trusted. Around them was an Israeli cordon sanitaire. Israel had full control of everything outside the complex. It also had control of what came in and went out. It would’ve been quite easy to poison anything that Arafat used during his meals: the raw foods used to make his meals, his utensils, cooking pots, plates. Finally, if it had to, Israel might’ve paid someone on the inside to do the dirty work, or it might’ve replaced an item used or ingested by Arafat that entered the complex, with a precise duplicate that was poisoned. Though many, including the Israelis, have attempted to divert blame by raising this possibility of internal intrigue, I think it’s unlikely Israel even had to go this route.
So there you have it: Israel is by far the most likely culprit. There’s one way to challenge Israel’s denials. Plutonium created in different reactors has different signatures. So the element created in a Russian reactor would have a different isotope signature than that created in Dimona. All Israel has to do is provide a tiny amount of plutonium created at Dimona for comparison to the polonium that murdered Arafat. This would be a definitive way to confirm or rule out Israeli involvement.
Various journalists have suggested that this murder is a historical footnote that will have little or no impact on today’s events. I disagree. The Israelis and Palestinians are now locked in tense negotiations about their future. If Israel would murder the father of the Palestinian nation, why should today’s Palestinians place any trust or faith in a nation that would commit such a crime? Why shouldn’t the Palestinians turn in disgust and say they want nothing to do with such murderers? I can’t speak for Palestinians and don’t pretend to. But the idea of making peace with Israeli leaders who conspired to murder one of Palestine’s heroes will be anathema to some and justifiably so. But for Bibi Netanyahu this will undoubtedly be just another one of those “artificial crises” he pooh-poohed in an interview yesterday.
The following is an earlier post I wrote detailing Israel’s long history of research into polonium. It sets the backdrop for what Israel did to Arafat by showing that Israeli chemical weapons scientists have long experimented with polonium. Israeli understands its lethality because its own researchers have been killed by it.
With news breaking in Al Jazeera this week about the possible poisoning of Yasser Arafat by polonium, I thought it worthwhile to examine an interesting line in Clayton Swisher’s report, which refers to an accident in an Israeli lab involving the material. Through further research, I discovered that this was the first nuclear accident in Israeli history and it took the lives of a number of Israeli researchers, both immediately after the accident and even decades later.
This report by Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar is based on Michael Karpin’s book, The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What That Means for the World:
According to the book, in 1957 a leak was discovered at a Weizmann Institute laboratory operated by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Traces of polonium 210 were found on the hands of Prof. Dror Sadeh, a physicist who researched radioactive materials, as well as on various objects in the professor’s home. The AEC handled the accident with deep secrecy. After a short investigation, whose results were not presented to even the workers, the lab was hermetically sealed for several months.
A month after the lab closed, a physics student died of leukemia. A few years later, Prof. Yehuda Wolfson, Sadeh’s direct supervisor, also died, and Prof. Amos de Shalit, the department’s director, died of cancer in 1969 at age 43.
When the leak was discovered, Sadeh was terribly anxious, but tests indicated he was well. But according to Karpin’s book, the tests did not include his bone marrow. Sadeh and his wife hid the facts from their family and friends until he died prematurely. The cause of death was cancer.
The Israeli authorities did not admit that the leak and the deaths were connected, but people close to Sadeh confirmed that the state took responsibility for the accident and compensated his family.
This obituary indicates Sadeh–who later became a renowned astrophysicist, proved a fundamental principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and was the director of the Israeli space agency–died at age 60 in 1993.
Here is another source offering more information on the cause of the leak, and the scientists contaminated, including the graduate student who died:
The first nuclear accident in Israel took place before the reactor was operational. In the years 1956-1957 scientists in the Weizmann Institute were preparing for the construction of the reactor and the production of a bomb. “Material which was supposed to seal the nuclear substance and protect it from leaking cracked and radioactive materials leaked. This was discovered late, and high reading of nuclear material was found in the laboratory and in the bodies of some of the workers. High radiation was also found in the homes of the young scientists, articles they touched and even their children’s beds. This was reported by Maariv in 2006 after a period of censorship in these matters for nearly 50 years (a report by Chen Kotz-Bar).
…Dror Sadeh himself wrote: “During 1956-1957 I was working in the radioactive laboratory in the Weizmann Institute. I was an employee of the Israeli Nuclear Energy Committee. As part of my work I treated a radioactive source which emitted alpha rays. This source was coated with a very thin layer of plastic material designed so that all the radiation would be directed towards the target. For a long period of time there was no monitoring of the radiation in the institute. Then one day a test was conducted on a table at the lab, and Alpha radiation well exceeding normal level was detected. Even in my home radiation was detected. The lab was sealed for some months. In my urine tests no radiation was found, but no attempt to test other organs (e.g. bone marrow) was made. One month after the lab was closed one of the physics students died from blood cancer. As far as I can remember his name was Yonathan Ramberg.
Asia Ramberg, widow of Yonathan Ramberg (the student who died of leukemia) recalled: “I remember that someone from the institute came and said that he had to go as soon as possible to the hospital.” Bamberg was a graduate student at the Weizmann Institute at the time and was the youngest faculty member in Dror Sadeh’s group.
“Yonathan was 28 at the time. He was feeling quite ill and large spots started to appear on his body. I was not even scared; I just saw the bright side of things. We went to the hospital Friday and on Saturday they told me that he was very ill. The day after that, Sunday, was our second anniversary. I picked a few flowers, and when I got to the hospital I saw Yonathan dwindle in front of my eyes. He died the same day. I was in shock. My parents collected me from the hospital like a broken egg-shell. I was helpless. I barely spoke for three years. I did not investigate what happened. Nothing.”
It makes perfect sense that Israeli intelligence, learning about both the accident and its repercussions for the health of the lab workers, would be interested in learning everything it could about polonium poisoning. When you have a lemon, make lemonade. Clearly, Russia had a similar program because its polonium was used, likely by its intelligence agents, to poison Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
Israel operates a major facility at Ness Ziona which experiments with chemical and biological agents. It would make sense if research was performed on polonium, it would’ve happened here.
Now that the PA has agreed to exhume Arafat’s body in Ramallah, further testing has at least a 50% chance of determining whether polonium killed him. Testing of his body tissues could also isolate the nuclear facility from which the polonium was produced. If Israel killed him, it would’ve been far smarter to have procured Russian polonium than to have used material from Israel’s Dimona reactor. But if the material is from Dimona, the killers would then be exposed.
Though we can’t know for sure whether Israel did it, we can see who is creeping out of the mire to debunk Al Jazeera. Josh Block and Lenny Ben David, both paid pro-Israel operatives (one formerly with Aipac and the second, the Israeli embassy) are circulating discredited claims that Arafat was a “sexual deviant” (Elie Leshem happily published this nonsense in The Times of Israel and justified it by falsely associating the term “pederast” with Arafat) who engaged in gay sex with his bodyguards and died of AIDS. The AIDS claims was convincingly debunked within the Al Jazeera documentary by a specialist who tested him (as did the French hospital where he died) and found him HIV negative. The gay sex smear was peddled in a smutty book by the Romanian ex-secret police chief under Ceausescu, who defected to the west. That was good enough for the “quality journalism” represented by the Times of Israel and its crusading, truth-seeking editor, Elie Leshem. ‘Nuff said.
The Jerusalem Post quotes an “expert” falsely claiming that polonium deteriorates so quickly that no traces of it could remain after eight years. This expert has no scientific training, and in fact has a PhD in political science and is a colonel in the IDF. Hussein Ibish, DC neocons’ favorite Arab, writes in Foreign Policy that the Al Jazeera story is bogus because the symptoms Arafat presented at death were inconsistent with polonium poisoning. Ibish offers no scientific support for his claims. In ad hominem tweets calling me “raving mad,” Ibish quotes a post I wrote in 2004, two weeks after Arafat died, speculating that he died of AIDS. This eight year-old post was first dredged up by Islamophobe pro-Israel blogger, David Lange. Neither Lange nor Ibish note that five years ago I posted that Sharon likely ordered the killing. If Arafat is found to have been poisoned by Polonium, that 2007 post will have been proven correct. In the world of intellectual sham inhabited by these two opinions, once expressed, turn into immutable stone
Returning to Arafat’s symptoms, at least one he exhibited, severe diarrhea, is consistent with such poisoning. Ibish, of course, doesn’t mention this. Though it is true that Litvinenko lost his hair and Arafat did not.
The fact that such figures have come out of the woodwork to protect Israel from culpability for Arafat’s death indicates there are those within Israel’s intelligence apparatus who want to obfuscate and confuse rather than shed light on these issues.