Arafat illness spurs struggle for influence
Key Palestinians jockey over possible successors
PARIS -- As he lay in a French military hospital fighting for his life early today, Yasser Arafat was at the center of a struggle over who would replace him as Palestinian leader and a controversy over his longtime desire to be buried in Jerusalem.
While observers in the Middle East voiced concern that his eventual death could unleash violence in the region, many analysts said that Arafat's departure from Palestinian politics might create an opportunity to restart deadlocked peace talks.
Media reports throughout the day varied widely on his condition, and some said he had died. There has been no explanation by doctors or aides of exactly what condition or illness Arafat is suffering from.
Arafat's chief of staff, Ramzi Khoury, said the Palestinian leader was clinging to life, although his condition was deteriorating rapidly.
"I am standing next to the president's bed, he is in grave condition," Khoury told the Associated Press.
Israel TV's Channel Two reported that Arafat was brain-dead and on life support.
Doctors at Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris, where Arafat was flown last Friday after two and a half years of confinement to his compound in the West Bank, brought little clarity to a swirl of conflicting accounts of Arafat's condition.
"Mr. Arafat is not deceased," said Christian Estripeau, head of communications for French military health services. He would not elaborate, beyond saying, "The clinical situation of the first few days following admission has become more complex."
The Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization met in emergency session in the battered, West Bank town of Ramallah. The committee empowered Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to deal with urgent administrative and financial matters.
Representatives of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which staged a suicide bombing Monday in the Tel Aviv produce market, said yesterday in Damascus, Syria, that a "collective leadership" including the Islamic Palestinian factions should be created to ensure that there is no vacuum in leadership due to Arafat's absence.
The Islamic militant groups have made such proposals for a broad leadership previously, but they have been rejected by the Palestinian Authority on grounds that all political groups already are free to work within the authority.
Israeli officials were unusually circumspect about Arafat's condition and the politics of Palestinian succession, following a scolding administered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ministers attending Sunday's Cabinet meeting.
"We will not get involved in it; we will not express an opinion on it, and will not publicly discuss it," Sharon said, instructing "all government bodies not to publicly deal with this issue until we decide otherwise." Speculation about what developments would be good for Israel, Sharon said, "causes serious damage in a sensitive period and is likely to bring about the opposite result" to what might benefit Israel.
The issue of where Arafat might be buried emerged as a potential flash point given Israel's refusal to consider Arafat's long-expressed wish to be interred at the sacred Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem. Israeli officials said there was no deal to return his body in the event of his death. Palestinian officials warned of massive civil unrest if Israel refused to allow the return of his body.
Y-Net, a website operated by Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper, quoted security sources as saying Israel's "greatest nightmare is that if Arafat dies, a Palestinian mob will snatch the body and try to bury it on the Temple Mount. . . . The security system in Israel is preparing for an uprising in the territories after Arafat's death, and maybe even before it."
News agencies reported last night that Israeli armed forces were moving to a state of high alert in response to deterioration of Arafat's health and rising tensions within Palestinian areas, but Israeli officials said there was no change in the status of their forces in recent days.
"We have not waited to make last-minute preparations," said Ra'anan Gissin, a senior aide to Sharon. "Preparations have been going on not just for a week" -- since the collapse in Arafat's condition became publicly known -- "but for several weeks prior, we were making preparations and changing deployments to preserve stability. Of course we are watching this closely, but that didn't begin in the last few days."
Arafat, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, has been confined since the spring of 2002 to several rooms in his Ramallah compound, which was largely destroyed by Israeli shelling and bulldozers.
The compound has been under constant surveillance by Israeli troops and sharpshooters, keeping Arafat under virtual house arrest. Israel and the Bush administration have recently isolated Arafat and viewed him as an obstacle to peace because of his support for the Palestinian uprising, or intifadah, with its armed insurgency against Israeli occupying troops and a wave of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.
Once described by Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister, as a leader who "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Arafat may -- in death -- open a new opportunity to restart deadlocked peace talks, analysts say.
A new Palestinian leadership would come at a time when Israel is planning to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip and amid growing pressure by Europe and Arab leaders on President Bush to do more to restart peace talks.
Bush, responding in Washington to questions about an early and unfounded report that Arafat was dead, said, "My first reaction is, God bless his soul. My second reaction is, we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel."
Many members of the Palestinian leadership, Arafat's closest aides, and his wife, Suha, gathered in Paris. Many were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Opera neighborhood of Paris. Observers said that the power struggle within the Palestinian leadership was already taking place, even in Paris as members gathered by their leader's bed.
Outside the hospital, as conflicting news reports spread about his quickly deteriorating health, people began to gather. At first, a few members of the Palestinian Diaspora -- refugees from the Israeli-Arab wars and immigrants to France -- huddled together on a single blanket and lit candles.
By nightfall, the crowd had grown to more than 100 people -- most of them Palestinian but many of them from Arab countries, including Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan. As many as 200 reporters flocked to the hospital and television news satellite trucks from dozens of the world's leading media organizations idled at the entrance to the hospital waiting for news.
People carried posters of Arafat and Palestinian flags. A makeshift shrine sprouted on a sidewalk with candles, posters, flags, and a cardboard sign that read in French: "Yasser Arafat -- Symbol of the Palestinian People."
Nuha Rashmawki, 54, who was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and came to Paris in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, said, "This is a sad day. But the worst thing is to lose hope. We will always have hope and still believe, and will always believe, in a Palestinian state and in peace."
Majed Bamya, 22, the head of the Union of Palestinian Students in Paris, was wrapped in a black-and-white traditional kaffiyeh, or head scarf, which Arafat made a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
"He's a great symbol for us. There is a lot of anger over the conditions in which he was kept the last three years. If he should die, we would hope that his last wish would be respected to be buried in Jerusalem. It is our capital, too," Bamya said.
Globe correspondents Sa'id Ghazali in Ramallah and Lee Yanowitch in Paris contributed to this story. Sennott reported from Paris and Radin from Tel Aviv.