Palestinian Affairs

Arafat Polonium Conspiracy Theories Draw Eye-Rolls

Several media outlets today gave prominent coverage to the release of a 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine evaluating claims that former Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat had been poisoned by polonium. The report was described by some Western outlets as concluding that Arafat was “probably poisoned with polonium.” Many observers expressed skepticism, inasmuch as there are scientifically zero plausible scenarios under which forensic specialists analyzing Arafat’s remains last year could have detected polonium poisoning from 2004, when the Palestinian leader died. Dan Kaszeta – a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) veteran analyst – described the report as having “many caveats” and leaving “much room for doubt.” Responding to critics who didn’t seem to understand why the half-life of radioactive polonium made it impossible to detect abnormal levels which may have existed in 2004, Kaszeta reminded Twitter readers that the laws of physics applied just the same in the compound where Arafat was then holed up. Nature.com, which publishes the renowned international journal of science that goes by the same name, headlined its coverage of the report with the line “no firm proof Arafat was poisoned.”

But his lengthy report on the investigations, released yesterday (PDF), is clear that the evidence offers no firm conclusions. “I don’t think it will settle the debate,” says Patrick Regan, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, UK.

The results were mixed. Some samples showed unusually high levels of the isotopes – but in many cases their radioactivity was fairly evenly matched. Some even had much more lead-210 than polonium-210, suggesting that the isotopes may have been extracted from bone samples at different rates, further muddying the data. There is certainly no smoking gun in the report, says Regan.

The Swiss medical report been pursued and published by Al Jazeera, which on Twitter punctuated its posts on the topic with the hashtag “#KillingArafat.”

[Photo: amerune / Flickr]