An investigation is underway to see if the former Palestinian president was poisoned by a lethal dose of radioactive Polonium 210.

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The former Palestinian leader died in a Paris hospital in November 2004, aged 75. He was flown there after his health had suddenly deteriorated during an Israeli siege of his compound in Ramallah.

French doctors were unable to confirm a cause of death, and his widow refused to give permission for an autopsy. Conspiracy theories flourished, and now, eight years on, his body has been exhumed in an attempt to find some answers.

Arafat's widow Suha said the event would be very painful, and difficult for her and her daughter. But she told the AFP news agency: "We must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death. If there was a crime, it must be solved."

A French court opened a formal murder inquiry in August, after the Swiss Institute for Radiation Physics said it had found significant traces of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 on Arafat's toothbrush and other personal belongings.

Three separate forensic teams, from France, Switzerland and Russia, will examine tissue samples to see if they match the discovery made by the Swiss laboratory. They said eight years was about the limit for detecting any traces of the lethal substance.

Desecration

Tawfiq al-Tirawi, who is heading the Palestinian committee overseeing the investigation told reporters at the weekend: "Regardless of the results of the tests, whether they will be positive or negative, we are convinced and have all the evidence to prove that Israel has assassinated him."

It is a claim strongly denied by Israel, and foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said they had nothing to fear. "All the accusations against Israel are completely ridiculous and not based on the slightest bit of evidence."

And some of Arafat's own relatives are not happy that his remains are being dug up. His nephew Nasser al-Qidwa, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the exhumation, described it as a desecration and said no good could come out of it.

After the forensic examination has been completed, Arafat's body will be reburied with full military honours. It will be months beforer the results of the tests are likely to be announced.