Palestinian authorities on Tuesday exhumed the remains of their late leader Yasser Arafat, in readiness for an investigation by foreign experts into whether he was poisoned, as relatives and political successors have claimed.
Arafat, an icon of Palestinian nationalism, died in a French military hospital in November 2004, a month after suddenly falling ill. The immediate cause of death was a stroke, but the underlying reasons were unclear, leading to a widespread belief in the Arab world that Israel poisoned him — a claim Israel denies.
An investigation was launched at the time, but it lay dormant for years, only to be revived this summer when a Swiss laboratory detected traces of a lethal radioactive substance in biological stains on Arafat’s clothing.
On Tuesday morning, after several weeks of preparations, Arafat's remains were taken from his mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah and moved to a nearby mosque, according to two Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the mosque, Palestinian physicians took samples from the remains and handed them to Swiss, French and Russian experts, the officials said. The foreign experts will examine the samples in their home countries, the officials said. They also said that earlier samples were also taken from Arafat's bedroom, office and personal belongings.
The exhumation and investigation overcome Islamic restrictions according to which only Muslims can handle a Muslim's remains.
The Palestinian government had earlier covered parts of Arafat's mausoleum with a large sheet of blue tarpaulin to prevent any filming of the opening of the grave. Arafat was widely revered, and there were concerns that disturbing his grave could spark protests.
Public reaction in the West Bank was mixed.
Nidaa Younes, a Palestinian government employee, said it was unnecessary to dig up the remains.
"Our religion forbids exhuming graves. It is not nice at all to do this, even if religion permits it in some cases," she said, adding that she believed Israel was responsible for Arafat's death.
Ramallah resident Tony Abdo said he supported the exhumation, expecting it to prove that Arafat did not die a natural death.
Accusations that Arafat was poisoned revived after the Swiss laboratory, the Institute of Radiation Physics, featured in a televised investigation by Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera saying it had discovered elevated traces of the radioactive element polonium-210 on clothing said to be Arafat's.
Arafat's widow, Suha, had handed over his medical file and what she said was a duffel bag of his belongings, including a fur hat and a woolen cap with some of his hair, a toothbrush, and clothing with his urine and blood stains.
The Swiss laboratory said the findings were inconclusive and that Arafat's bones would have to be tested for more concrete proof. That prompted a request to have his remains exhumed, and Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, approved the request this summer.
But the exhumation and the testing of the remains might not resolve the mystery. Polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and some experts say it is not clear whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.