By Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - New suspicions that Yasser Arafat was murdered, perhaps poisoned by radioactive polonium, prompted the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday to agree to exhume the body of the iconic leader.
Israel, seen by many Arabs as the prime suspect behind the mysterious illness that killed the 75-year-old Arafat in 2004, sought to distance itself anew from the death of the man who led Palestinians' bid for a state through years of war and peace.
A Swiss institute which examined clothing provided by Arafat's widow Suha for a documentary by Qatar-based Al Jazeera television said its radiation protection experts had found "surprisingly" high levels of polonium-210, the same substance found to have killed a former Russian spy in London in 2006.
But it said symptoms described in the president's medical reports were not consistent with the radioactive agent.
"I want the world to know the truth about the assassination of Yasser Arafat," Suha Arafat, 48, told Al Jazeera, without making any direct accusations, but noting that both Israel and the United States saw him as an obstacle to peace.
Allegations of foul play - and of Palestinian involvement in it - have long marked factional fighting among Palestinians. The latest revelation coincides with renewed tensions within Arafat's Fatah movement, now headed by his successor President Mahmoud Abbas, and between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.
Abbas's administration said it would approve Suha Arafat's request to bring her husband's remains out for autopsy from a limestone mausoleum built next to his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, without giving a date for such a move.
"The Authority, as it always has been, is ready to completely cooperate with and clear the way for an investigation into the true causes leading to the martyrdom of the late president," said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, spokesman for Abbas.
Saeb Erekat, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), told Reuters the exhumation could take place as soon as "religious and family procedures" were complete.
"If you ask me, it's a matter of a days, not more than a few days," he said. "Then we will be in contact with the Swiss team or any other team that could come and exhume the body."
Confined by Israel to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for three years after a Palestinian uprising erupted, an ailing Arafat collapsed in October 2004.
Foreign doctors flocked to his bedside from Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan amid public assurances from Arafat's aides over the next two weeks that he was suffering from no more than the flu.
But looking weak and thin - and telling aides "God willing, I will be back" - he was airlifted to a military hospital in France, where he slipped into a coma and died on November 11, 2004.
At the time, rumors flew that he had died from anything from stomach cancer to poisoning to AIDS. French doctors who treated Arafat in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death. French officials, citing privacy laws, refused to give details of the nature of his illness.
Israel denied involvement in Arafat's death and the head of its Shin Bet intelligence service at the time, Avi Dichter, said on Wednesday it was for Palestinians to investigate: "The body is in their hands. It is in Ramallah, and really, all the keys are in their hands," he told Israel's Army Radio.
Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the slow death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. At high doses, polonium-210 causes damage to organs and tissues. Britain tried and failed to extradite from Russia a suspect who was a former Kremlin security officer.
Israeli Army Radio said introducing polonium into food was the only way to kill someone with the poison and asked Dichter, whose agency had overall responsibility for monitoring the Palestinians, whether it would have been possible with Arafat.
"You're asking me as his cook?" he answered, laughing.
He continued: "No, we were focused on more serious things. Arafat's food did not interest us. I think it interested those around him, in order, really, to keep his health up, as he was indeed known to be unwell. But the Shin Bet, or the State of Israel, were not involved in Yasser Arafat's food."
Pressed on the poisoning scenario, Dichter said: "Yasser Arafat had many enemies, domestically, abroad. But let them investigate ... The Palestinians know well how to investigate what goes on in their house. Let them investigate and find out."
A Hamas official, Salah Al-Bardaweel, called for an investigation, suggesting Palestinians might have helped Israel kill him, calling them "sinful hands that cooperated or facilitated the occupier's mission to get these poisonous materials into the body of President Arafat".
Commenting on the Al Jazeera report, Paddy Regan, professor of nuclear physics at Britain's University of Surrey, said "there is not enough information in the public domain to be clear about whether polonium-210 was, or indeed could have been, the cause of death".
Regan said there could be several other explanations, such as naturally occurring radioactivity, for the high readings on Arafat's clothing. He said all such "natural sources" must be ruled out before concluding polonium-210 was "a murder weapon".
In 1997, Israeli assassins were caught trying to poison a senior member of Hamas in Jordan. Israel is also suspected in the 2010 death in a Dubai hotel room of a Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who UAE authorities said had been drugged.
Suha Arafat, who lives in Malta and France and whose lavish lifestyle abroad has made her a controversial figure among Palestinians, said determining there had been a plot to kill her husband "will glorify more his legacy" and harden Palestinian resolve in any future negotiations with Israel.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks collapsed in 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
"Arafat wanted to arrive with the Palestinian cause to a Palestinian state, and because of this they got rid of him," she said, without elaborating.
Israel's foreign minister in 2004, Silvan Shalom, rejected at the time as "scandalous and false" the idea that his country had a role in Arafat's death. But Israel had earlier threatened Arafat, blaming him for Palestinian violence.
After losing 15 citizens to suicide bombings in September 2003, Israel's security cabinet decided to "remove" Arafat, without elaborating publicly on the precise action it planned to take. An Israeli newspaper quoted Dichter as saying at the time that it would be better to kill Arafat than exile him.
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah,; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alastair Macdonald)