The media frenzy in the wake of the Swiss laboratory report on Yasser Arafat’s remains has all the mystery, suspense and false trails of a detective thriller; an Agatha Christie style “whodunit”.
More seriously it illustrates the unfortunate prevalence of irresponsible and lazy reporting in mainstream media.
Let’s look at a few headlines
Haaretz Nov 6:
Swiss team: Arafat poisoned to death with polonium
Swiss Report Supports Theory Arafat Was Poisoned
Tests ‘show Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium’, widow says
But nothing in the Swiss lab report justifies the certainty expressed in the above headlines. To the contrary, the report goes to lengths to explain that the results are uncertain. Chapter Vl.3. points to critical problems including a lack of adequate biological specimens, very small specimens such as a single hair shaft, and atypical specimens such as sweat in clothing or traces of blood and urine on personal effects.
All of these specimens proved problematic in terms of their analysis, as well as for the interpretation of the results. We have limited experience working with such specimens and very little has been published in the scientific literature..
One cannot exclude the possibility of chemical degradation or redistribution with the surrounding environment. The very short half-life (138 days) renders their detection eight years after subject to large uncertainties. The elapsed 8 years prevented directly measuring soft tissues more suited to confirm the presence or absence of artificial polonium, as was found in the clothing. Finally, the “chain of custody” of the specimens contained in the bag cannot be documented between the death in November 2004 and their reception in Lausanne in February.
Far from declaring with certainty that Arafat was poisoned, the director of the Institute of Radiophysics in Lausanne Dr Francois Bochud had announced that the expensive and exhaustive observations only
moderately support the hypothesis of Arafat being poisoned.
There is certainly good reason for Dr Bochud’s moderation as in his words
.. it was not possible to explain what we did measure. The polonium that we did measure is actually the supported kind of polonium, the same kind of polonium that you would find naturally.
It is important to understand the difference between supported and unsupported polonium. Supported polonium 210 is formed when radioactive uranium decays in nature. It is present in measurable amounts in the natural background radiation in the earth’s crust and in normal, healthy biological materials such as human bone, albeit at very low levels. According to the Journal Of Environmental Radioactivity the average activity concentration levels of supported Po (210) in various soils are in the range of 20-240 Bq kg(-1). The material found in the grave was of the naturally occurring type.
On the other hand manufactured polonium from a nuclear reactor is unsupported and by contrast with the material found in the grave, the polonium (210) found in Arafat’s personal items that were made available to the lab by widow Suha was of the unsupported or manufactured type. These items had been stored for eight years leading to the possibility that they had become deliberately or unintentionally contaminated.
With no evidence at all, accusing fingers are pointed at Israel based on the false claim that polonium is available only to a state that has a nuclear reactor. Israel is believed to have a nuclear reactor; therefore Israel is responsible for poisoning Arafat. But this is lazy reporting. With little effort, even a lazy journalist could discover that polonium (210) is used in some commercial products such as anti-static brushes and that according to the NY Times a lethal dose is available for as little as $22.50 Plus Tax.
Among the intriguing mysteries involved is the fact that among the personal items examined by the lab eight years after his death was a urine stained pair of underpants. This is puzzling. Unless another explanation is offered one must assume that when Arafat arrived at the hospital the part of his clothing that was not submitted for forensic examination including underpants would have been sent to the laundry. As bedridden patients are generally clothed in a hospital gown without underclothing it does seem strange that this soiled undergarment was given to Mrs. Arafat weeks after his arrival at the hospital. As, at that stage she had refused an autopsy and as it appears she was not yet considering submitting the items for forensic examination one wonders why she was given the undergarment in its soiled condition.
Another mystery is the blood stain on the hospital cap provided by Mrs. Arafat which indicates that Arafat must have suffered a head injury while in hospital. Yet no mention is made of such injury or the cause of the stain.
According to CNN this is how Paddy Regan, a professor of radionuclide metrology in the physics department at the University of Surrey described the forensic examination
It’s like a blindfolded man holding the tail of an elephant and using that to estimate the weight of the elephant. You can do it, but there is a huge amount of extrapolation involved.
And Professor Roland Masse, a specialist on radioactivity who teaches at the Paris hospital where Arafat died told Times of Israel that it would have been impossible to miss radioactive poisoning in the tests that were carried out at the hospital. The tests showed that there was absolutely no way Arafat was poisoned.
However, the temptation to blame Israel is too great to miss. Palestinian inquiry chief Tawfiq Tirawi said
“We consider Israel the first, fundamental and only suspect in Yasser Arafat’s assassination”
But Israel has an unexpected defender. According to the Scotsman , Arafat’s widow accuses someone from the Palestinian leader’s own inner circle of poisoning him. Speaking in Qatar after a tearful appearance on Al Jazeera, she said
I’m sure it’s someone in his close circle.. its a political assassination..The expert said that the poison was put in his tea, or coffee or water, so it must have been someone close to him.
Accusations and counter accusations abound. Abbas Zaki, a senior member of Fatah retorted
Nobody should enter into accusations of this kind. He’s the leader of the Palestinian people. We shouldn’t differ on these issues. It’s a disaster for our national cause..I wouldn’t put anything past Al Jazeera, and it’s all turned into a bit of a movie.