At first they thought it must have been something he’d eaten. About two hours after having supper, at 11.30pm on the evening of October 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat felt sick.
The 75-year-old chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation vomited twice, then felt a little better.
But when he awoke the next morning, he felt worse. A doctor diagnosed viral gastroenteritis, and the Palestinian leader was given medicine.
By that evening he seemed to be responding well, and a report later stated he ‘continued with his usual activities’ at his compound in Ramallah on the West Bank.
Over the next few days Arafat’s condition stabilised, but did not improve. Medical staff were baffled, and it was only when Tunisian doctors were summoned, nearly two weeks after he fell ill, that the real cause of Arafat’s illness was diagnosed: thrombocytopenia — a reduced number of platelets in the blood.
Platelets are a key part of the clotting system, and a low count can lead to spontaneous internal bleeding.
Bone marrow samples were taken and, as he deteriorated further, Arafat was flown to the Percy Military Hospital in Paris.
On November 3, he fell into a coma, and in the early hours of November 11 he died of internal bleeding in the brain.
For nearly a decade, the true cause of death of a man regarded by some as the world’s most evil terrorist has remained a mystery, amid accusations from his family and supporters that he was poisoned.
This week, however, the world came a step closer to finding out the truth.
Two years ago, Arafat’s widow and daughter demanded a French judicial inquiry into his death. Since then Swiss scientists have investigated his belongings for traces of poison.
And they have announced the results in the medical journal The Lancet: they found traces of a highly toxic radioactive material, polonium-210, on his headwear, underpants and toothbrush.
In the article, coyly titled ‘Improving forensic investigation for polonium poisoning’, the team say they took samples of blood, sweat and urine from Arafat’s clothes and found they contained significantly higher than expected levels of polonium-210.
‘These findings support the possibility of Arafat’s poisoning with polonium-210,’ the report baldly states. It is a conclusion that tallies with another investigation of Arafat’s belongings, which was published in May last year.
The authors of both reports stress that their findings are not definitive, but they certainly point to an assassination.