French magistrates opened a murder inquiry in August into Arafat's death in Paris after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of radioactive polonium on his clothing, which was supplied by his widow, Suha.
Tuesday's operation is hidden from the public by a blue plastic sheeting designed to give discretion to a procedure that many -- including some family members -- have compared to a desecration. The exhumation echoes "some highly sensitive issues," one Western diplomat in Ramallah conceded as workers prepared to assume their unusual task.
Experts believe that little will remain of Arafat's tissue and that the scientists will only be able to secure samples of his bone -- which may have degenerated into powdered form -- or threads of his clothing.
Poison tests ill be performed as Palestinians believed that Arafat was poisioned by Israel -- a theory that gained ground in July when Al-Jazeera reported Swiss findings showing abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat's personal effects.
Polonium was the same substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin criticAlexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
The head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat's death, Tawfiq Tirawi, was present during the digging beside investigators and experts from Switzerland, France and Russia, Xinhua quoted sources as saying.
"It is very painful. It is a shock, and it is not easyfor myself or my daughter," Arafat's widow Suha Arafat told by telephone from her home in Malta ahead of the highly controversial procedure.
"But we must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death. If there was a crime, it must be solved." Rumours and speculation have surrounded Arafat's death ever since a quick deterioration of his condition saw his passing at the Percy military hospital in November 2004 at the age of 75.
French doctors were unable to say what killed the Palestinians' first democratically elected president and an autopsy was never performed at his widow's request.
Arafat, who led the Palestinians' bid for a state through years of war and peacemaking, died in Paris aged 75 in 2004 after a short, mysterious illness.
Isarel denies palestinian charge
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesmanMark Regev dismissed the probe as misguided.
"Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat,"Regev told P in July. "All the medical files are in thehands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication."
The laborious process at the site of Arafat's mausoleum in the West Bank's Muqataa complex from which the late leader ruled will see French experts work alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia.
The Swiss are here because they were the first to analyse the Arafat samples submitted to them by Al-Jazeera. The Russians' presence has not been fully explained by the Palestinians. However the country is responsible for most of the world's polonium production and should therefore have the expertise to handle remains of the dangerous substance.