Yasser Arafat’s death always has been shrouded in mystery.
Now his remains and entire tomb are shrouded in tarps as the Palestinian Authority has given permission for his body to be exhumed Tuesday from its burial place below a memorial in the muqata, the Palestinian presidential headquarters. After a lengthy legal and diplomatic process, Mr. Arafat’s French widow, Suha Arafat, has won a court order, and received French support for an examination of her husband’s body to determine if the iconic figure had been poisoned, as long has been rumoured.
The leader of the Fatah resistance movement, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and first president of the Palestinian Authority, died in Paris in 2004. He was 75 and had been moved to the French capital from this Palestinian city, suffering from some unknown illness.
The expansive white marble site, a popular spot for tourists and a required stop for foreign dignitaries, looks today more like a construction site , with gravel and dirt piled outside the walls as the plastic tarps flap in the chilly wind.
Port Said Road, which runs along the southern side of the compound and provides pedestrian access to the grave, has been closed to traffic and guards are suspicious of a journalist making notes and interviewing passersby.
On Tuesday, in a process supervised by Palestinian authorities and closed to the media, the body of “the old man” as he is popularly known, will be extracted from the grave. In a dignified manner, as it is being described, samples of his tissue will be taken and, a few hours later, the body will be returned underground, the grave closed and the memorial reassembled.
In an operation reminiscent of CSI television episodes, those tissue samples will be flown to labs in France, Switzerland and Russia where they will be examined for traces of poison, specifically Polonium-210, a radioactive material that has been used to kill and the half-life of which is so rapid that it is believed no traces would be left after the end of this year.
Mr. Arafat was always a controversial figure in life; so too in death. His people are completely divided over whether this scientific fishing expedition is the right thing to do.
“Absolutely not,” said a 50-something Ramallah pharmacist who would only identify himself by his nickname of Abu Imad. “This examination should have been done eight years ago,” he said.
“At this point it will be difficult to confirm any traces of the poison,” he said. “But even if they find something, what are they going to do about it?”
“They certainly won’t do anything if they suspect it was Israel that did it,” he said bluntly, casting aspersions on his own Palestinian government’s weakness when it comes to Israel. “It’s better if we just move on.”
Usama abdel Meguid, a 28-year-old radio technician, thought differently. “It’s definitely the right thing to do,” he said said. “Arafat’s killer must be brought to justice.”
Mr. abdel Meguid said he has always believed Israel killed Mr. Arafat, the Jewish state’s great nemesis, who in his final years seldom ventured outside his palace. He had been surrounded by Israeli forces since then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the palace mostly destroyed in 2002 to check the power of the man The Israeli leader deemed responsible for the extreme violence of the second intifada, from 2000-2005.
“Everyone knows Sharon killed him,” said one older gentleman in his 60s as he passed by the site. “But we need evidence to prove it.”
“I blame the PA for the delay in allowing this examination,” said the man, referring to the Palestinian Authority, now led by Mahmoud Abbas. The man, sporting a large well-groomed mustache and British auto-racing cap walked away when asked for his name.
Israel denies any involvement in Mr. Arafat's death.
Some Palestinians complain that the Palestinian Authority has too little control over the investigation. But Mr. Abbas’s administration refused to allow the process to take place until the French and others agreed to allow Palestinian supervision of the exhumation and guaranteed that all the findings would be provided immediately to the Palestinian Authority.
If any legal proceedings are to be undertaken after that, it is the PA’s chief prosecutor who will conduct them, including taking the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Israel, in 2004, refused Palestinians permission to bury Mr. Arafat in Jerusalem, the city he had dreamed would, one day, be capital of a Palestinian state; hence, his burial in a “temporary” tomb in Ramallah, until he can be reburied in the holy city.
That was the only occasion, Palestinians say, they ever imagined him being dug up.
At the intersection outside Abu Imad’s pharmacy, someone has attached an old, black and white poster of Yasser Arafat to a lamppost. In the 1970s and ’80s, the “old man” was pretty well every Palestinian’s hero; standing up to Israel and its Western supporters with a campaign using guerrilla tactics, terror and, eventually, diplomacy.
“That’s the man everyone loves,” said a customer in the pharmacy, also opposed to the exhumation. “Let’s just remember him that way.”
Editor's Note: Israel denial of any involvement in Mr. Arafat's death was added to this story after initial publication.