RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Eight years after Yasser Arafat's mysterious death, his political heirs opened his grave Tuesday and let forensics experts take samples from his remains, defying strong cultural taboos in search of evidence that the icon of Palestinian nationalism was poisoned.
Palestinians have claimed for years that Israel poisoned Arafat, who died in a French hospital. Israel has denied the charges.
The exhumation marked the end of months of procedural wrangling but only the beginning of the testing. Palestinian officials said it would take at least three months to get results, and even then, they might not be conclusive.
Workers opened Arafat's tomb before daybreak Tuesday, laying bare the remains some four meters (13 feet) below ground level, the Palestinian health minister said. A Palestinian forensics examiner took some 20 samples and handed them to Swiss, French and Russian experts, officials said.
Huge sheets of blue tarpaulin draped over Arafat's mausoleum hid the scene from view, part of an attempt by Palestinian officials to minimize any potential backlash against digging up the grave of Arafat, still widely revered in the Palestinian territories.
By midmorning, the grave was resealed, and Palestinian officials laid wreaths of flowers to signal Arafat's reburial.
The three teams will separately analyze the samples for possible poison, including polonium-210, a lethal radioactive substance first detected in elevated amounts on some of Arafat's clothing this summer.
Polonium disintegrates rapidly, and experts have cautioned that too much time may have passed since Arafat's death to reach a conclusive result.
Polonium was used in the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned Russian government critic. Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin for poisoning him.
Israel has denied killing Arafat, but many Palestinians believe Israel's then-prime minister, Arafat nemesis Ariel Sharon, had means, motive and opportunity.
Former Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said Tuesday that such allegations are baseless and that Israel "had no reason" to kill Arafat, who in his final years lived under Israeli military siege in his walled West Bank compound.
Palestinians launched an investigation immediately after Arafat's death at a French military hospital but made no progress. The dormant probe got a jolt this summer when a Swiss lab found the polonium on Arafat belongings provided by his widow, Suha.
The initial discovery, part of an investigation by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, was followed by wrangling between Mrs. Arafat, other relatives and Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Mrs. Arafat wanted a quick exhumation, Abbas initially hesitated and Arafat nephew Nasser al-Kidwa said he opposed digging up the remains.
In the end, Abbas could not be seen as blocking a thorough investigation and, armed with blessings from Muslim religious leaders, authorized the exhumation.
Abbas was en route to the United Nations on Tuesday, giving him some distance from the proceedings right outside his office window.
Three different teams were present when the grave was opened Tuesday: one from the Swiss lab, one from France, where an official death inquiry was launched at the request of the widow, and one from Russia, responding to a call for help by Abbas.