Did the late Palestinian leader die of poisoning? This is the nagging question that French investigators hope to answer by exhuming the remains of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Tuesday, eight years after his death in a Paris hospital at the age of 75.
French judges in charge of the investigation arrived on Sunday evening in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the site of Arafat's mausoleum, in a murder investigation that was opened in August, the French news agency AFP reported.
Rumors of foul play have long surrounded the sudden demise of Arafat, a champion of Palestinian statehood from the time he was 19, and eventually, the democratically-elected president of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat was revered by many Palestinians and Arabs as a freedom fighter, and reviled by many Israelis and its allies as a terrorist for his relentless fight for Palestinian self-determination. But he also had enemies and rivals within the Arab and Palestinian political circles.
The rapid deterioration of his health and death baffled doctors who were trying to treat him in France, and an autopsy was never performed at the request of his widow, Suha.
Many Palestinians believe Arafat was poisoned at the behest of Israel — an idea that Israel has rejected.
But poisoning as a cause of death gained currency after a Swiss institute said it had found high levels of radioactive polonium on Arafat’s clothing, which was supplied by Suha, prompting the French to open a formal murder inquiry.
Polonium was the substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Litvenenko was a Russian ex-spy who later became a relentless critic of the Kremlin.
"It is a painful necessity" to exhume the body of Arafat, said Tawfiq al-Tirawi, who is in charge of the Palestinian committee overseeing the investigation, speaking to reporters in Ramallah on Saturday.
Tirawi said the Palestinians had "evidence which suggests Arafat was assassinated by Israelis," Reuters reported.
Tirawi said separate samples will be taken from the remains by the French and Swiss forensic teams, as well as a Russian team of experts invited by the Palestinians, and that results could take up to several months to be announced. Arafat’s body would be reburied in a military ceremony, he said.
Not everyone agrees that exhuming the late leader serves a purpose because even if it shows that he was poisoned — which may be hard to establish this long after his death — it won’t reveal who poisoned him.
The exhumation and renewed allegations of Israeli involvement could stir further tension between the Palestinians and Israelis, who are observing a truce after a week of fierce fighting in Gaza.
An editorial in the Jerusalem Post on Monday lambasted the process.
"Can we really rely on an impartial forensic investigation now? Too much political capital appears to have been invested in this affair to instill much confidence that everything will be strictly on the up and up. This, moreover, is without even going into the issue of whether all evidentiary material is in fact untainted."
Another critic of the exhumation — for entirely different reasons — is Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa, who compared the process to "desecration," the AFP reported.
"No good can come out of this at all," Qidwa told the agency. "It does no good to the Palestinians."
More world stories from NBC News:
- Investigators prepare to exhume Yasser Arafat in murder inquiry
- As battle raged in Syria, Russia sent tons of cash to Damascus, records show
- Fire at German facility for disabled kills 14
- Egypt's Morsi says he wants to stabilize country
- More than 100 killed in Bangladesh factory fire
- Scientists rush to save manta rays, the 'pandas of the ocean'
Reuters contributed to this report.