NBC Pushes Line That Death of 'Sacred' Yasser Arafat Was Poisoning, Ignores New Report That Says No

On Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News and Thursday’s Today, NBC hyped the notion that Palestinian guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat “may have” been assassinated by poisoning. They let Palestinians accuse Israel, and bizarrely suggested only Israel “considered” Arafat a terrorist (forgetting decades where the U.S. officially agreed).

There was no NBC update Friday when NPR’s All Things Considered reported the Palestinian Authority released a separate Russian study that did not confirm the notion of poisoning with Polonium-210. NBC didn’t offer any journalist or government official who disagreed with the pro-Arafat line:

The evening report came from NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin, who previously worked for Al-Jazeera English, and here was Al-Jazeera in this story:

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: For nine years, his death has been a mystery. But what killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have finally been answered-- radiation poisoning. A team of Swiss scientists who exhumed and examined Arafat`s body say their findings moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with Polonium-210.

CLAYTON SWISHER (Al Jazeera Investigative Reporter): Within his skeleton, they found values that far exceed the average environmental levels by eighteen to thirty-six times.

BRIAN WILLIAMS (clip from Arafat's grave being prepared in Ramallah, November 11, 2004): And this will become a sacred site now [!], a shrine for Palestinians going on decades into the future.

MOHYELDIN: Just before his death in 2004, Arafat fell mysteriously ill, besieged in his West Bank headquarters by the Israeli military. He was flown to France where he ultimately died. No autopsy was ever performed. Last year an investigation by the Doha based news channel, Al Jazeera led Arafat`s widow to demand answers. She now believes her husband was murdered.

SUHA ARAFAT: It`s really a shocking, shocking, shocking crime to get rid of this great leader.

MOHYELDIN: But if it was murder, who did it? How polonium got into Arafat`s body is a question Palestinians now want answered.

HANAN ASHRAWI, former Paltestinian spokeswoman: What we need is proof that Israeli occupation is responsible, that Israeli government has killed him as a result of an official decision.

MOHYELDIN: Israel considered Arafat a terrorist and an obstacle to peace but has always denied any involvement in his death. To Palestinians, he was the leader of their long struggle for statehood. Controversial all his life, Arafat's death is now just as controversial.

On Thursday morning, Richard Engel repeated the "Israel considered him a terrorist" concept, and added “Nobel Peace laureate” to the honorific list:

RICHARD ENGEL: A Palestinian guerilla fighter, a terrorist to many Israelis, a Nobel Peace laureate, and now a report says Yasser Arafat may have been the victim of assassination.

SUHA ARAFAT (Widow; Courtesy: Al Jazeera): It`s a political crime. It`s a political assassination of a great-- great leader.


ENGEL: The proof is allegedly in Arafat`s bones. His remains exhumed a year ago. A team of Swiss scientists in contact with the TV network Al Jazeera said their findings, "moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with Polonium-210." Arafat`s levels, the report says, upwards of eighteen times the normal level of the radioactive poison. The scientists said the poison could have been planted in his food, drink, even toothpaste.

CLAYTON SWISHER (Al Jazeera Investigative Reporter): Anyone who looked at this report would just have to conclude that he had polonium circulating in his body at the time that he died.

ENGEL: The mystery around Arafat`s death goes back to a turbulent time in 2004. The peace process had collapsed, Israel just retaken the West Bank and Arafat was holed up in his Ramallah compound when suddenly he fell ill, quickly, Palestinian leaders blame Israel.

HANAN ASHRAWI (Palestinian Leader): So now we know when and how. What we need is proof that the Israeli occupation is responsible.

ENGEL: Israel denies it had any role in killing Arafat and says he was seventy-five, and unhealthy, an aging man, not a target. An Israeli spokesman this morning was dismissive of this study, saying that Israel has long been accused of wild conspiracy theories in the Middle East. Palestinians saying, okay, then how did this radioactive poison get in his body?

Engel, unlike Mohyeldin, repeated Israel's charge of "wild conspiracy theories." On Friday, NPR's Emily Harris let Palestinian pundits suggest America might have been in on killing Arafat, but at least NPR put on journalists who balanced out the Palestinian accusations:

EMILY HARRIS: Journalist Matthew Kalman has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 15 years. Israeli denials, he says, do nothing to sway Palestinian public opinion.

MATTHEW KALMAN: The problem with the Israelis is that they sound exactly the same when they're denying something because they should be denying it, and when they're denying something and they're not telling the truth.

HARRIS: But Kalman's own investigations for a book he co-authored this year, "The Murder of Yasser Arafat," indicate that Israel was not involved.

KALMAN: Our research behind the scenes with the people who basically would've carried out this assassination had it been Israeli policy suggests that they didn't do it.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis