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Months After Arafat Death, Reports Shed Little Light on Cause of Demise

September 9, 2005
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The mystery of Yasser Arafat’s death lives on. After months of silence from the Paris hospital where the Palestinian Authority president died of an undisclosed illness last November, two reputable newspapers finally obtained his medical records.

But the retrospective diagnoses offered Thursday by Ha’aretz and The New York Times were remarkably different.

“Doctors: Arafat Died of AIDS or Was Poisoned” the liberal Israeli daily blared in a banner headline.

By contrast, the Times wrote, “Medical Records Say Arafat Died From a Stroke.”

Both papers had consulted with eminent medical experts, so their varying views only served to perpetuate the schism between conspiracy theorists — of both pro-Arafat and anti-Arafat camps — and Palestinian Authority, Israeli and French officials who insist there was no evidence of foul play.

“I hope that people will start refraining from continuing to target Arafat after his death,” said Saeb Erekat, who served as a senior aide to the PLO chief.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom voiced the wish that “all of these fables and rumors be struck from our agenda once and for all.” He was echoed by his French counterpart, who was visiting Israel.

“One should always be careful with publishing causes of death on the front pages,” said Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former physician.

After two years in which his health failed in trying conditions at his West Bank compound, Arafat collapsed last October and was airlifted to a hospital outside Paris. He was pronounced dead Nov. 11 following several days in which conflicting reports had him either comatose or experiencing miracle recoveries.

His widow and heir, Suha, kept all doctors’ reports strictly under wraps.

To Palestinians embittered with Israel’s handling of Arafat and prone to explaining political developments with conspiracy theories, the poisoning theory had appeal.

To those bitter at Arafat’s corruption and intrigued by his long-distance marriage to Suha — after decades in which rumors swirled about his sexuality — AIDS seemed equally likely.

Ha’aretz and the Times agree that the Palestinian leader succumbed to massive internal bleeding, and that it is impossible to determine exactly what infection caused it.

The Times said its experts’ review “suggests that poisoning was highly unlikely and dispels a rumor that he may have died of AIDS” — though it noted that the absence of an AIDS test in the medical report is highly unusual.

Ha’aretz suggested that poison, perhaps ricin, could have been slipped into Arafat’s food, but also noted that he could simply have suffered standard food poisoning. Ha’aretz further quoted Gil Lugassi, president of the Israel Hematologists Association, who said that Arafat’s symptoms as described in the medical report were consistent with the onset of AIDS.

Lugassi received uncanny endorsement from Dr. Ashraf Al-Kurdi, Arafat’s Jordanian physician.

Though he played no part in the Palestinian leader’s final treatment — and refused to take part in a post-death investigation because Suha Arafat had not allowed an autopsy to be conducted — Kurdi told Israel’s Channel Two television that Arafat indeed had the AIDS virus in his blood. However, he claimed it had been injected into Arafat to cover up the fact that he had been poisoned.

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