When al Jazeera published the “bombshell” of their research into Arafat’s death, the reception was almost completely predictable. The pro-Palestinian camp seem to have already concluded that Arafat was poisoned with Polonium 210. The anti-Palestinian camp have already concluded that the Polonium was planted.
As I am fond of doing, it may be wise to review the science and see what is and isn’t supported. The radiological analysis was conducted independently by the Institute of Radiation Physics (IRA) in Lausanne. They received Arafat’s belongings from the University Centre of Legal Medicine (CURML) and was asked to analyse them for possible traces of Polonium poisoning. Their report is here.
The Polonium Thesis alleges that Arafat was poisoned with Polonium 210, and this is what killed him. There are two main problems with this:
1. If we assume a similar dosage to that of the russian journalist Mr Litvinenko, then the residual levels of radioactivity are simply too high, they should have been much lower. Mr Litvinenko received between 10 and 200 times the median lethal dose of what is a very expensive, very hard-to-come-by poison. To support the poisoning theory, Arafat would needed a much, MUCH higher dose in order to explain the current levels of radioactivity.
It is possible, but strikes me as unlikely. Polonium 210 isn’t particularly dangerous when it is outside the body. It’s a basic alpha emitter, so it spits out a Helium-4 nucleus every time it decays. Alpha particle are blocked by a sheet of paper, our clothes, our skin – they are not dangerous.
Polonium is VERY dangerous though if it were to be ingested or inhaled. Any Polonium used as a poison would have had to have been in suspension, which would, when opened, have produced a toxic vapour which others around him would probably have inhaled. Given that it takes only 50 nanograms to kill someone, it would take only miniscule amounts to make someone ill with radiation poisoning. Given the high dosage that would have been required to support the current levels of radioactivity, it strikes me as odd that no such reports of radiation sickness were reported.
2. Polonium 210 is also a gamma emitter. This means it also spits out a gamma photon when it decays. Given the high levels of dosage required to support current levels of radioactivity, one would have expected these gamma decays to have been seen when the “Laboratoire de contrôle radiotoxicologique des Armées” performed gamma spectrometry analysis of Arafats urine on 8/11/2004. The Lausanne team went over the raw data from that spectrometry analysis and concluded that it did not show the presence of Polonium 210. As a lone data point, it is explainable (faulty equipment, user error, government conspiracy etc) but it certainly lends some support to the suggestion that Arafat did not die of Polonium 210 poisoning.
These are the two main sticking points for the Polonium thesis.
The counter-thesis, namely that the Polonium was planted is not without its problems. Here are the issues as I see them:
1. As far as I know, Arafat’s belongings have remained in the custody of the University Centre of Legal Medicine and were not released back to his widow. This raises the question of “how” any such planting might have occured. It would have required access, which would tend to suggest high level support for the plot or a recruited asset at the University Centre of Legal Medicine.
2. If the Polonium was planted, it was expertly planted. It’s not a case of giving his belongings a quick shake of some Polonium dust, the Polonium has been introduced in all the right places, in a way that did not raise the suspicions of one of the best forensic laboratories in the world. If it was planted, this might suggest that the person who planted it was skilled in forensic science and might have been an asset at the University Centre of Legal Medicine.
3. The source of the Polonium. Where did it come from? Whilst Polonium can be bought without a license in tiny, safe amounts – to get the quantities we’re talking about, it would require a lot of money and the right technology – i.e. the support of one of the major nuclear states, probably Russia/France/Israel/US. So even if it was planted, which nuclear power backed the plot to plant it? And why?
4. Why go to the trouble, risk and expense of planting Polonium on his possessions if you’re not also going to plant it on his body? An analysis of his body was obviously going to be called for – what is to be gained? The discrediting of al Jazeera? To what end? To discredit supporters of the Polonium thesis? Has it also been planted on his body?
So neither proposition is without its problems. Currently it makes very little sense. Depending on the direction the wind is blowing I change my mind over which thesis is least probable. The numbers make poisoning seem unlikely, but the counter thesis seems highly improbable too. Their is a lot of circumstantial evidence in support of the Polonium thesis. The finger of blame is already pointing at Sharon, but circumstantial evidence doee not a case make.
Will wait patiently for further analysis.