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Dueling Arafat Reports Divide Palestinians — And Al Jazeera

Was the late Palestinian leader poisoned? "This is going to look biased."

Posted on December 4, 2013, at 8:38 a.m. ET

AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh

A new French report has found that contrary to recent Swiss findings, Yasser Arafat was likely not killed by polonium poisoning — deepening rifts in Middle East politics and inside the Qatar-based cable network Al Jazeera, which has based its high-profile reporting on the Swiss research.

Al Jazeera reported last month that the Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman had died in 2004 after being poisoned — apparently confirming suspicions across the Arab world. The new report flatly contradicts that finding.

And internal Al Jazeera emails seen by BuzzFeed reflect deep internal concern about the network's relationship with the former PLO leader's widow, Suha Arafat, and with the scientific researcher involved in the report. "We should be bringing in another independent investigator. This is going to look biased," one Al Jazeera journalist wrote.

The network Tuesday stood by its reporting, even as it carried the contradictory French report on its website.

"We've covered both reports so I can't do better than direct you to our coverage," Al Jazeera English spokesman Osama Saeed said in an email. "If you read it, the Swiss report is mentioned in our article today and is on the TV coverage too. As a news outlet, all we can do is report on the studies as they become available. That's what all news outlets will be doing today."

Clayton Swisher, Al Jazeera's chief investigative reporter and the driving force behind the Arafat reporting, did not return a request for comment on the French report.

But Al Jazeera's Nov. 8 story, based on the Swiss report, was a blockbuster. Al Jazeera reported then that a "smoking gun" had been found and that Arafat had indeed been poisoned by polonium. Headlines immediately ran in most of the Arabic and English-language press, quoting the strong language of Swisher's report; an op-ed in The Guardian even called for an independent investigation to determine who poisoned Arafat with polonium.

In the aftermath, Palestinian officials were furious at the network, which has often been a thorn in their sides. In interviews, they questioned the relationship between the news network and its sources: Suha Arafat and the Swiss lab that performed the tests and determined that Arafat was likely poisoned with polonium. The network, said more than a dozen Palestinian officials interviewed by BuzzFeed for this story, played into the hands of a decades-long standoff between Suha Arafat and the top leadership of the Palestinian Authority as both seek to control Arafat's legacy.

"Al Jazeera doesn't care about a thorough investigation or answers for the Palestinians, they care about throwing blame at the PA, making the PA look bad, and they hope to cause as many problems for the PA as they can," said Zehair Abu Hussein, a former Fatah official who currently works with a government subsidiary program, echoing the views of senior Palestinian officials unwilling to speak on the record, and reflecting a long-running animosity toward the network from a regime its reporting has, at times, deeply embarrassed.

The most recent exploration into Arafat's 2004 death began last year, when Swisher, the dynamic head of Al Jazeera's investigative unit, approached the Palestinian leader's widow for the diaries her husband kept during his political career.

"I found her unwilling to share those items. She did let me study and review her late husband's entire medical file from the Percy Military Hospital, including some 600 pages + MRI's, XRAY's. It seemed to me that a good story lay therein," wrote Swisher during a Q&A he did on Reddit nearly a year ago. Swisher also said Suha gave him a green gym bag, containing Arafat's final belongings.

Swisher took the belongings and the records to the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, which found high levels of polonium in a urine stain on Arafat's underwear, a blood stain on his hospital cap, his toothbrush, and a sweat stain on the collar of his jumper.

In a documentary aired on Al Jazeera in July 2012, Swisher revealed the findings, and other news networks joined him in calling for further tests to be conducted.

The Palestinian Authority deliberated, and four months later, in late November exhumed Arafat's body and sent samples to three labs — a French lab, a Russian lab, and the original Swiss lab contacted by Al Jazeera.

"There was a lot of debate, and we didn't want to send it to the Swiss since they had a deep involvement with Al Jazeera we weren't comfortable with, but in the end there was strong pressure to continue working with them since they had made the original finding," said one Palestinian member of the investigative team. "In retrospect, that may have been a mistake."

Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Arafat's grave in Ramallah.

But since the dust has settled, concerns over the documentary, and what, exactly, it reveals about Arafat's death, have roiled the Doha-based network. Three journalists, two of whom formerly worked at Al Jazeera and another who is still employed there, spoke to BuzzFeed about their concerns over the documentary and said that there had been serious objections within the news organization to the way in which the investigation was conducted, including over the role of Swisher and why Suha Arafat gave him her husband's belongings.

One of the journalists, who has since left Al Jazeera, showed BuzzFeed internal email correspondence that discussed compensation offered to Suha Arafat during her cooperation with the Al Jazeera report. The email, which was sent from a regional office to a senior news editor in Doha, asks: "Why are we doing this? Shouldn't she want to give us that damn bag on her own? This doesn't make sense to me."

BuzzFeed was shown the correspondence on the condition that authors and recipients not be quoted by name.

The only expert cited in the report, David Barclay, was previously involved in other high-profile cases but has no expertise in toxicology or other known cases of polonium poisoning. In another email shown to BuzzFeed, the Al Jazeera journalist wrote, "we should be bringing in another independent investigator. This is going to look biased."

Osama Saeed, the Al Jazeera spokesman, said Suha Arafat had not received compensation, but did say that the network had flown her to Qatar and paid for her hotel accommodation while she participated with the program. He said he could not say if she was still there or for how long she stayed.

"That is something we regularly do with guests. It would not be out of the ordinary for us to fly her to Doha and pay for her hotel here," Saeed said.

Swisher also said Suha Arafat had had her travel and lodging covered by the network in a reddit AMA on Nov. 14; "Anytime Al Jazeera brings guests to Doha for special coverage there are reasonable fees included (airfare, hotel, meals, etc.). This is customary in the news industry," he wrote.

Meanwhile, senior PA officials said Arafat's widow had repeatedly refused to cooperate with their investigations.

"We had repeatedly asked Suha for these belongings, as had other official groups who wanted to investigate Yasser Arafat's death, and she refused, only to turn around and suddenly give them to Al Jazeera when they offered her compensation," said one senior Palestinian official who is part of the Ramallah-based team studying Arafat's death. "Why give it to a news organization? Is that really the best address to go to if you want to investigate your husband's death?"

Stories of animosity between Suha Arafat and the senior leadership of the PA go back decades, when she was seen as interfering and objecting to the opinions of top PA officials. Thirty-three years her husband's junior when they were married, Suha was often an outspoken critic of his political allies.

Ali Mhanna, the Palestinian justice minister, also questioned why Suha would turn to Al Jazeera and accused the network of seeking scoops that fit "the agenda they have about being against the Palestinian Authority and trying to make problems for the Palestinian Authority."

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters / Reuters

Suha Arafat in 2012.

Swisher had previously made headlines in Ramallah by revealing the "Palestine Papers," a collection of confidential documents, and other members of the Palestinian negotiating support team. The scoop rocked Palestinian politics, embarrassing the senior Palestinian leadership — especially after Swisher's report on Al Jazeera framed them as a sign of Palestinian weakness during peace negotiations with Israel, and of a willingness on the part of Palestinian leaders to offer territorial concessions that they had previously told their constituents they would not budge on.

Swisher, who joined Al Jazeera in 2008, previously worked in Washington, D.C., as a consultant for C&O Resources, a consulting group that works with clients in the Middle East and North Africa, and has, in the past, employed a range of formers from the intelligence and diplomatic worlds. Before that, Swisher served in the Marine Corps Reserves and spent three years as a special agent with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service. In that role, he worked as a bodyguard for Arafat on four separate occasions, which Swisher described in a May interview with his hometown paper, the New Castle News:

"The first time was during Arafat's June visit to the United States; the second was later that month during then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit with Arafat to Ramallah, in the Occupied West Bank, to plan the July Camp David Summit; next was during the Camp David Summit, attended by then-President Clinton, Albright, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; and, later that year, the final chance arose during an emergency meeting at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to France with Albright and then-CIA director George Tenet."

"My interactions with Arafat then were purely professional," Swisher told the New Castle News. "There was a peace process ongoing then between Israelis and Palestinians, so negotiating with Arafat was central to that process. Keeping him alive and protected from any harm was our narrow mission."

Al Jazeera's exclusive report into Arafat's death stressed that scientists at the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland discovered levels of polonium at least 18 times higher than normal in the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's ribs and pelvis and in soil that absorbed his remains.

In a press release, the channel stressed that the "data is compatible with the theory that the Palestinian leader was poisoned with the radioactive element at a level up to 84 per cent." The report by the Swiss scientists, however, included a sentence that said the findings only "moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210," which Al Jazeera made quick mention of.

Two other teams — one French and one Russian — were also asked by PA officials to examine samples taken from Arafat's grave and other evidence. While the French team has found that Arafat's cause of death was not polonium, the Russian team reported inconclusive results earlier this month, announcing that they found "insufficient evidence of polonium poisoning." Those results, said Palestinian officials, were also made available to Al Jazeera, but the network did not mention it in its original reporting and later ran an article on its site dismissing and discrediting the Russian-led investigation into Arafat's death.

Al Jazeera did run a story on Tuesday on the French report. Saeed said the story is leading coverage on Al Jazeera English. The Al Jazeera story on the report says that no French radiological experts were present at the time of Arafat's exhumation.

Since Al Jazeera's first report, there have been calls from officials across the Arab world for an additional independent investigation. Palestinian officials and other critics, meanwhile, have continued to raise questions about the Swiss lab.

When asked by BuzzFeed who had paid for the initial forensic tests done on Arafat's final belongings, Saeed said the network was not involved: "I believe that the [Lausanne University] Hospital in Switzerland did the tests pro bono." Swisher had also said in interviews that the laboratory "ate the costs," suggesting the work had been done pro bono.

A spokesman for the lab, however, told the Washington Free Beacon that Suha Arafat paid for the tests to be conducted. The lab also said that Swisher himself delivered the green duffel bag with Arafat's final belongings.

In its 108-page report, the lab said its findings could not be more conclusive, as the "chain of custody" of the bag was unaccounted for.

In a Q-and-A with Reddit users, Swisher talked about his involvement in the project and how he acquired the bag:

"Mrs. Arafat stated the bag was in the care and secure custody of her personal attorney during the past 8 years in Paris until I collected it in February from her. It was under watch and lock from the time I received it in early February until I took it by train to Lausanne to turn it over to the laboratory. Admittedly, it wasn't a perfect chain of custody. While I didn't notice any spooks breaking into my hotel room to dab Polonium in the bag, that's not to say it is entirely impossible (just highly improbable!)."

In another Reddit AMA Swisher did in November, he addressed the question of why Suha Arafat decided to entrust him with the bag: "No other journalists proposed to do the job we did, and I like to think my persuasiveness had an effect."

The story is unlikely to end here. As the furor over the report began to build in early November, top Palestinian officials, including the prime minister and most of his inner cabinet, gathered under floor-to-ceiling posters of a youthful Arafat in Ramallah to mark the nine-year anniversary of the former Palestinian leader's death.

"It's a special occasion for us this year, now that there is again discussion and new investigations into Yasser Arafat's death," said Nasser Qudwa, Arafat's nephew and former Palestinian foreign minister. "We wish we had more answers … We will get more answers."

Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
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