RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has given final approval to dig up Yasser Arafat's remains and is also pressing for an international investigation of his predecessor's mysterious 2004 death, a top aide said Monday.
The decision came days after a Swiss lab detected elevated traces of a lethal radioactive agent on clothing said to be Arafat's.
Testing Arafat's bones could offer the last chance to get to the bottom of Palestinian claims that their leader was poisoned, though some experts cautioned it may already be too late for conclusive answers.
Several Palestinian officials have charged that Israel poisoned Arafat. The French doctors who treated Arafat in his final days did not present a clear cause of death, while Israel emphatically denied it killed the Palestinian leader.
Arafat, who died at age 75, is buried in a mausoleum in the walled government compound in the West Bank where he spent the last three years of his life under Israeli siege.
Scenes of heavy machinery tearing into the wreath-covered grave of the revered leader could prove offensive to devout Muslims. Also, the grave has become a must-see site for Palestinian and foreign visitors to Ramallah.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Monday that the need to know overrides cultural sensibilities. "We are seeking the truth, and every single Palestinian is seeking the truth, and we cannot reach the truth without it (exhuming the remains)," Erekat told The Associated Press.
"In my heart, I have always said that President Arafat was assassinated, was killed," he said. "Do I have evidence? I don't ... This is why we want the Swiss experts to come and exhume the body. This is why we should do everything humanly possible to get to the truth."
Denying a role, Israeli officials have said that with Arafat locked in at his headquarters, there was no need to kill him. They argued that an assassination would only have destabilized what already was a difficult period of heavy fighting. They called the latest round of charges "ludicrous."
Access to Arafat was relatively easy: holding court at his compound, the Palestinian leader received many gifts from visitors, including candy he often tasted spontaneously.
Arafat died Nov. 11, 2004 in a French military hospital, a month after falling violently ill at his Ramallah compound. French doctors said he died of a massive stroke and had suffered from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC. But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous possible causes, including infections and liver disease.
Last week, the Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera broadcast results of what it said was a nine-month investigation of Arafat's death. Arafat's widow, Suha, gave the station her husband's medical file and a duffel bag crammed with what she identified as his belongings, including a fur hat and a woolen cap with some of his hair, a toothbrush, and clothing with his urine and blood stains.
Switzerland's Institute of Radiation Physics detected elevated traces of polonium-210 — a rare and highly lethal substance — on Arafat's belongings, but said the findings were inconclusive and that Arafat's bones would have to be tested to get a clearer answer.
Mrs. Arafat, who has lived abroad since before her husband's death and remains a contentious figure in the Palestinian territories, demanded that Arafat's body be exhumed. Palestinian officials have said privately they were blindsided by the Al-Jazeera report and the widow's request for an autopsy. After Arafat's death, she had blocked requests for a post-mortem examination.
Abbas decided late Sunday to give final approval to reopening the grave, Erekat said.
By mid-week, Palestinian officials hope to send invitations to experts at the Swiss institute to come to Ramallah and help exhume the body. The go-between is one of Arafat's physicians, Dr. Abdullah Bashir, a Palestinian based in Jordan.
Bashir said main decisions, such as deciding on the size of the needed bone sample, would be left up to the Swiss experts.
Darcy Christen, a spokeswoman for the institute, said there has been no official word yet from the Palestinians.
Beyond the autopsy, Abbas seeks an international investigation, and raised the idea last week in a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, who listened but made no promises, Erekat said.
Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of Arafat and the spokesman for the family, was cool to the idea of exhuming the remains, but signaled Monday he would not stand in the way.
"Our belief was always that it was an unusual death, and most likely he (Arafat) was poisoned. Now all indications say he was poisoned," he told the AP. Al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, heads the Yasser Arafat Foundation and is the custodian of Arafat's legacy.
The top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories has already given his blessing to exhuming the remains.
However, testing the bones may not provide clear answer. Polonium-210 decays rapidly, and experts have been divided over whether Arafat's remains would provide a solid clue eight years after his death.
Less than 1 gram (0.035 ounces) of the silver powder is enough to kill. Polonium's most famous victim was KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after the substance was slipped into his tea.
Someone poisoned by polonium would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. Litvinenko lost his hair and turned blue, symptoms not displayed by Arafat.
After Arafat's death, the Palestinian Authority established a committee to investigate, but made no progress. Palestinian officials said they relied at the time on the results of tests conducted by the French doctors, who found no signs of common poisons. Al-Jazeera said the French military hospital destroyed Arafat's blood and urine samples four years after his death.
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed reporting.