02:56 - Source: CNN
Questions surround Arafat's 2004 death

Story highlights

NEW: The exhumation could begin within weeks, an official says

Official: Mahmoud Abbas says former Palestinian leader's body can be exhumed

A stain contained higher levels of polonium-210 than a typical sample, a scientist says

The test results do not necessarily mean Arafat was poisoned, the scientist says

CNN  — 

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has approved the exhumation of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s body, an official said Monday.

The approval comes days after investigators said they found high levels of a radioactive substance on some of Arafat’s personal belongings. Last week, Suha Arafat, the former leader’s widow, told CNN that she wanted his body exhumed to find out whether he was poisoned.

“The president is making all the contacts for the process to be done,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

Medical experts from Switzerland will travel to Ramallah to take samples from the body, Ashrawi said.

“The remains will be exhumed for them to take whatever necessary samples to carry out the required tests,” she said.

The process could begin within weeks, she said.

A Swiss doctor said last Wednesday that investigators had found high levels of toxic polonium-210 on some of Arafat’s belongings, though it does not mean he suffered radiation poisoning.

“We have evidence there is too much polonium, but we also have hints from the medical records that this may not be the case,” said Francois Bochud, director of the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland. “The only way to resolve this anomaly would be by testing the body.”

The Palestinian Authority said last week that it would not object to exhuming the body from its tomb if Arafat’s family approves.

If it turns out that Arafat, who died in 2004, was poisoned, “Any result will be significant for us to help know the truth,” Suha Arafat said. “It is a form of closure for our family. Closing one wound but opening a new one, wondering who is responsible.”

Bochud’s research team tested Arafat’s toothbrush, clothing and keffiyeh, the trademark black-and-white headscarf he often wore, Bochud said.

A body fluid stain contained 180 megabecquerels per liter of the radioactive isotope, while a typical sample would contain 5 megabecquerels per liter, Bochud said. A becquerel is a unit of measurement of radioactivity.

The fabric of Arafat’s clothing, without body fluid, contained less than 10 megabecquerels per liter, Bochud said.

Suha Arafat said she was requesting the body be exhumed “to make sure 100% of the existence of polonium.”

Arafat died at age 75 at a Paris military hospital after he suffered a brain hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Palestinian officials said in the days before his death that Arafat had a blood disorder – though they ruled out leukemia – and that he had digestive problems.

Rumors of poisoning circulated at the time, but Palestinian officials denied them, and then-Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath said he “totally” ruled them out.

Two weeks after Arafat’s death, his nephew said medical records showed no cause of death. Nasser al-Kidwa, who was the Palestinian observer to the United Nations, said toxicology tests showed “no known poison” – though he refused to exclude the possibility that poison caused his uncle’s death.

“The suspicion that he was killed, that he was deliberately murdered, has been there all along, and most Palestinians believe that,” Ashrawi said last week. “I personally believed it because I was with him; I saw him; I saw the transformation, and it certainly was unnatural.”

Ashrawi said she had spoken with Arafat’s doctors, who told her that they could not rule out the possibility that he had been poisoned. “But we didn’t have any kind of thread, any kind of evidence,” she told CNN. “This report, in many ways, tells us our suspicions are founded, that there is sufficient evidence to say that he was killed, that he was assassinated using polonium.”

But getting data from items like clothing “is really tricky business,” said Cham Dallas, a professor and toxicologist at the University of Georgia’s Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense.

“We don’t have enough information to make any definitive statement, but it does seem a bit of a stretch” to conclude that Arafat was poisoned by polonium-210, he told CNN in a telephone interview last week.

Dallas questioned how much confidence the Swiss scientists could have in their measurements and said he is looking forward to results from tests carried out on the body after it is exhumed.

“I’d have a lot more confidence if you could give me a bone sample,” he said.

CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz and Schams Elwazer contributed to this report.