The Palestinian Authority will start legal proceedings against Israel at the International Criminal Court if forensic tests prove that President Yasser Arafat was murdered, chief investigator Tawfiq Tirawi said Tuesday.
“We have evidence and indications that (Arafat) was killed, including remarks by Israeli leaders that they must get rid of Arafat, but we need evidence to submit to the International Criminal Court,” Tirawi told reporters at a news conference in Ramallah. Forensic experts took samples from Arafat’s uncovered corpse in Ramallah on Tuesday, trying to determine if he was murdered by Israeli agents using the hard-to-trace radioactive poison Polonium.
Tirawi, who heads the committee investigating Arafat’s death, told reporters that samples taken by Russian, Swiss and French experts would leave Ramallah on Tuesday.
He added that the Palestinian general prosecution supervised all the legal and medical procedures which took place over the past few days.
“The corpse of the late Palestinian leader was touched only by Palestinian hands. The Palestinian medical team took the samples and gave them to other teams as requested,” Tirawi said.
Arafat died as a martyr for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, Tirawi said, noting that the exhumation happened to coincide with Palestine’s submission of a resolution seeking “observer state” status at the UN.
“(A Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital) is what Yasser Arafat always said and today he repeated it from his grave,” added Tirawi.
In Gaza City, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he backed the PA’s efforts.
Haniyeh told reporters that “the case of Yasser Araft is a distinguished national case because he was an iconic revolutionary and leader of the Palestinian people.”
Palestinians witnessed the funeral of their hero and longtime leader eight years ago, but conspiracy theories surrounding his death have never been laid to rest.
Many are convinced their icon was the victim of a cowardly assassination, and may stay convinced whatever the outcome of this autopsy. But some in the city of Ramallah where he lies deplored the uncovering of his body Tuesday.
“This is wrong. After all this time, today they suddenly want to find out the truth?” said construction worker Ahmad Yousef, 31. “They should have done it eight years ago,” he said.
Arafat’s body was uncovered in its grave and samples were removed without having to lift the corpse from the ground. As a result, the planned reburial ceremony with full military honors was called off.
The tomb was resealed in hours and wreaths were placed by Palestinian leaders including PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
“The state of the body was exactly what you would expect to find for someone who has been buried for eight years. There was nothing out of the ordinary,” Health Minister Hani Abdeen told a news conference.
French magistrates in August opened a murder inquiry into Arafat’s death in Paris in 2004 after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of polonium on clothing of his which was supplied by his widow, Suha, for a television documentary.
Jordanian doctor Abdullah al Bashir, head of the Palestinian medical committee, said about 20 samples were taken and analysis would take at least three months.
“In order to do these analyses, to check, cross-check and double cross-check, it will take several months and I don’t think we’ll have anything tangible available before March or April next year,” said Darcy Christen, spokesman for Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland that carried out the original tests on Arafat’s clothes.
Arafat led the bid for a Palestinian state through years of war and peacemaking, then died in a French hospital aged 75 after a short, mysterious illness.
No autopsy was carried out at the time, at the request of Suha, and French doctors who treated him said they were unable to determine the cause of death.
But allegations of foul play surfaced immediately, and many Palestinians pointed the finger at Israel, which confined Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah for the final two and a half years of his life after a Palestinian uprising erupted.
Israel denies murdering him. Its leader at the time, Ariel Sharon, now lies in a coma from which he is expected never to awake. Israel invited the Palestinian leadership to release all Arafat’s medical records, which were never made public following his death and still have not been opened.
Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose all his hair.
Eight years is considered the limit to detect any traces of the fast-decaying polonium and Lausanne hospital questioned in August if it would be worth seeking any samples, if access to Arafat’s body was delayed as late as “October or November.”
Not all of Arafat’s family agreed to the exhumation.
Arafat’s widow watched her husband’s exhumation on television from her house in Malta.
“This will bring closure, we will know the truth about why he died. I owe this answer to the Palestinian people, to the new generation, and to his daughter,” a tearful Suha told the Times of Malta.