Yasser Arafat is not the only leader whose body has recently been exhumed. South America has seen a wave of exhumations of political leaders who died in debatable circumstances. Bolívar’s televised exhumation in 2010 was orchestrated by Hugo Chávez, who wanted to prove that Colombian oligarchs had poisoned the liberator of Latin America. In 2011 in Chile, Salvador Allende was exhumed at the request of state prosecutors to ascertain whether the two bullet holes in his skull were self-inflicted or whether at least one was the work of Pinochet’s troops. Both exhumations failed to prove murder. Last year Chile also exhumed Pablo Neruda, to determine whether his apparent death from cancer in 1973, shortly after he published an article denouncing Pinochet, was actually the result of poisoning. No signs of poison were found, but the Chilean Communist Party complained that the forensic pathologists had failed to test for biological as well as chemical agents. In Brazil, a truth commission examining the abuses of the country’s long dictatorship has just exhumed João Goulart, the president toppled in the US-backed coup of 1964, in an attempt to establish whether he was poisoned while in exile in 1976.*

The modern history of forensics is most often seen as one in which states police their subjects. But these exhumations are part of a narrative in which the victims of power are used in evidence against the state. That the anti-imperial heroes of the past are being dug up is a sign that their politics are in short supply among the living. The turn to forensics as a tool for uncovering past political crimes – as well as a way of gathering evidence of mass violence, as in the case of large-scale exhumations conducted in Bosnia, Spain, Guatemala and elsewhere – is in part a reaction to the obsession, dominant at the end of the 20th century, with the verbal testimony of victims. In recent years, as a means of adjudicating on the past, the ambiguities of memory and trauma have been replaced with the supposedly conclusive proofs of natural science. But, as the story of Arafat’s exhumation demonstrates, forensic findings are very often not conclusive – are subject, as science is, to degrees of probability and margins of error – and the practice itself is invariably politicised. There is a clue in the word: ‘forensics’ is derived from the Latin forensis, meaning ‘pertaining to the forum’; forensics is concerned not only with scientific study but, crucially, with its presentation.

The investigation into the cause of Arafat’s death began with his famed keffiyeh, the one he had with him on 29 October 2004, when he left Palestine for medical treatment in France after suddenly falling ill. In the summer of 2012 it was one of a few items, along with a toothbrush and underwear, handed over for analysis to the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne by Arafat’s widow, Suha. The Swiss scientists found that the items contained traces of the radioactive poison polonium 210, and that November, in a process directed by the Palestinian Authority, a pathologist exhumed Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. Sixty samples from his remains and the surrounding parts of his tomb were distributed to three forensic teams: one Russian, one Swiss, one French.

The analysis was complicated by the length of time that had passed since Arafat’s death. The half-life of polonium 210 is 138 days. After 22 half-lives, any polonium in Arafat’s body would have decayed to such an extent that it would be difficult to measure directly. So the investigators also looked for the signs that polonium leaves behind – high levels of lead 210, for instance. If used as a poison, polonium not only destroys the body that ingests it but also erases its own traces: valuable qualities in a murder weapon. The Russian team’s findings have not officially been disclosed, but a statement in November – retracted the same day, possibly after pressure from the Foreign Ministry – suggested that they had detected no traces of polonium. This conclusion was immediately criticised by other scientists, who complained that the Russians, for unknown reasons, had examined only four of the twenty bone samples they had received, choosing particularly those bones, like the skull, that polonium would be unlikely to penetrate. The Swiss team found levels of polonium that were 36 times higher than expected, and declared themselves 83 per cent confident that he had been poisoned – a figure that, in a careful choice of words, ‘moderately supported’ polonium as the cause of death.

The French reported on 3 December. They agreed with the Swiss about the high levels of polonium, but argued that these were likely to be a result of the radioactive decay of naturally occurring radon gas present in Arafat’s tomb. They concluded that he died of natural causes. The Swiss were dismissive: unlike the French, they said, they had actually measured the radon levels in the tomb, which weren’t high enough to produce the amounts of polonium both teams had seen. The French countered that as Arafat lay dying in the Percy military hospital outside Paris, he had shown none of the symptoms of radiation poisoning, such as were dramatically seen in the case of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. It is possible that the cause of death will never be proved either way, or not to the satisfaction of the most interested parties. Even the Swiss team’s 83 per cent confidence that Arafat died of polonium poisoning was dismissed by the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Yigal Palmor, as ‘inconclusive, at best’. It seems that the sixty fragments from Arafat’s tomb – now scattered across Europe like the relics of a medieval saint – will go on being the subject of this bizarre political-scientific battle, in which the credibility and expertise of all the teams are perpetually cast into doubt.

The removal of the keffiyeh to Lausanne was only a temporary setback for the creators of the Arafat museum, construction of which is now finally nearing completion after many delays. The plans call for the keffiyeh to be displayed alongside Arafat’s medal for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. One object represents the militant founder of the modern Palestinian national movement, the other the negotiator and peacemaker. It is a sign of how contested everything around Arafat is that one became material evidence in an inquest, while Hamas confiscated the other, the medal, in 2007, when it took control of Gaza, and still refuses to return it.

The museum, which stands next to Arafat’s grave, is the work of the Palestinian architect Jafar Tukan. Its modern, sober look is meant to reflect the PA’s pretensions to legitimacy. Tukan also built the mausoleum that adjoins the museum, a cubic structure – 11 metres by 11, for 11 November, the day of Arafat’s death – surrounded by a reflecting pool. A mosque was built nearby; its minaret is designed to shine a laser beam that via several reflectors along the way would finally land at the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Arafat specified in his will that he wished to be buried. Israel vetoed the laser. The PA declared that this would merely be a temporary resting place for Arafat, until a Palestinian state was formed, at which point his remains would be exhumed and reburied in the Haram al-Sharif. The quality and expense of the mausoleum suggest that the PA didn’t believe the move was imminent.

From the mausoleum visitors will now be able to walk a short distance to enter the museum building, where four long ramps follow a timeline depicting Arafat’s life in photographs, documents and filmed material. On the second floor, the path turns into a bridge that leads to the remaining section of the original presidential headquarters, where Arafat was confined for the last two years of his life. When the architects decided to preserve his windowless office and his sleeping quarters with his bed, desk and effects ‘as they were during a prolonged Israeli siege’, they weren’t aware they were preserving forensic material.

The siege of al-Mukatah (literally ‘the district’), the area at the northern end of Ramallah containing Arafat’s compound, began in the spring of 2002, after a spate of suicide attacks in Israeli cities gave Sharon a pretext to invade the West Bank. He held the army back outside the gates of the compound, determined, it seemed, to keep his promise to Bush not to harm Arafat, against the advice of his chief of military staff. Palestinians joked that the compound was like the Gaulish village in the Asterix books: the only part of Palestine left unoccupied. But in September 2002 the Israeli military entered with bulldozers and started demolishing the buildings. Only the offices that housed Arafat’s headquarters were spared: an island in a sea of rubble. The bulldozers began scraping at the walls; Arafat and his entourage retreated deeper into a windowless part of the building. Then, on 12 October 2004, Arafat fell ill and was flown out for treatment. He didn’t come back until he was dead.

Arafat’s death brought an end to the siege. A few weeks later, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the PA, a truce ended the Second Intifada and Sharon was free to shift his attention to Gaza, where – until he had his stroke – he pursued the assassination of Hamas’s political and military leadership, while evacuating Israeli settlements. In Ramallah, al-Mukatah was rebuilt with international funds. The PA’s new presidential headquarters, Abbas’s chief of staff declared, were to be a place where ‘the president can meet world leaders and deal with the world in a civilised and modern manner.’ Al-Mukatah was built by the British as part of a network of military outposts used to suppress the Arab Revolt of 1936-39; after 1948 it was used as a base by Jordanian troops; in 1967 it was taken over by the Israeli army, which added a notorious prison; in 1996 it was ceremonially passed to the PA, as part of the Oslo agreement, and former prisoners became tour guides. But in the years that followed the PA rounded up its rivals and put the prison to new use, until the final siege. Now, apparently, al-Mukatah is internationally respectable.

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