Arafat fighting for his life; some powers shifted to Palestinian premier
CLAMART, France – Yasser Arafat was reportedly fighting for his life Thursday at a French military hospital after losing consciousness, as anxious Palestinian officials transferred some of their 75-year-old leader’s powers to Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
Doctors at Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris, where Arafat was airlifted last Friday after more than two years of confinement in the West Bank, quashed a swirl of reports that he had died. But the French doctors would not say much else, and Palestinians issued conflicting reports about Arafat’s condition and how close to death he was.
The confusion continued this morning when an Israeli Cabinet minister said Arafat is brain dead and being kept on life support. “They will need to decide when to stop it,” Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Israel TV’s Channel Two.
He was the first senior Israeli official to speak in detail about Arafat’s condition, but the source of his information was not immediately clear.
“I don’t know more than what the whole world knows,” he told the network, which had reported the same condition Thursday.
However, Arafat’s personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television that “Arafat has no type of brain death.” He also said a brain scan showed that Arafat had not suffered a hemorrhage or stroke.
Outside the hospital, some 50 well-wishers held a vigil late into the evening. Some held candles, others portraits of Arafat. A large Palestinian flag hung from the hospital’s outer wall.
“It tears your heart up,” said Mahmod Nimr, a 36-year-old unemployed Palestinian. “I can’t see someone taking his place.”
In an emergency meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the PLO executive committee empowered Qureia to deal with urgent administrative and financial matters in Arafat’s absence, said committee member Qais Abdel Karim. Qureia also will meet with security chiefs in the Gaza Strip on Friday to ensure that no internal conflict erupts in the volatile area at a time of uncertainty, a Palestinian official said.
A prolonged Arafat incapacitation – or death – could have profound impact on the Middle East. There are fears of unrest among Palestinian factions, which Arafat, viewed as a national symbol by even some who opposed him, was largely able to prevent. Furthermore, chaos in the West Bank and Gaza could make any cooperation with Israel even more difficult.
On the other hand, Israel and the United States have in recent years shunned Arafat as a terrorist and an obstacle to peace, and his replacement by a new leadership could open the door to renewed peace talks. Such a scenario could affect Israel’s plans to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in a move not coordinated with the Palestinians.
Arafat’s chief of staff, Ramzi Khoury, called an Associated Press reporter to say the Palestinian leader was alive but that his condition was grave.
“I am standing next to the president’s bed, he is in grave condition,” Khoury said.
In Washington, Said Hamad, deputy chief of the Palestine Liberation Office, said Arafat was in a coma. Arafat was taken to the intensive care unit after his condition worsened overnight Wednesday.
French television station LCI quoted an anonymous French medical official as saying Arafat was in an “irreversible coma” and “intubated” – a process that usually involves threading a tube down the windpipe to the lungs. The tube is often connected to a life support machine to help the patient breathe.
However, three Palestinian officials denied Arafat was in a coma.
“He is not getting better, but not getting worse either. He is being examined. He is not in a coma,” Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. “There is no explanation for what has happened.”
A Palestinian official in Gaza who is close to Arafat’s wife Suha said she told him her husband fell unconscious after receiving a strong anesthetic for a biopsy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted Suha Arafat as saying her husband was recovering.
At Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, where leaders of the PLO and Arafat’s Fatah movement were meeting, Shaath said top officials were in touch with the hospital in Clamart every 30 minutes.
“The Palestinian leadership is in constant meeting to follow up on the president’s health,” Shaath said.
Meanwhile, about 1,500 Palestinians demonstrated in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya and 500 more in the Balata refugee camp in support of Arafat.
Israeli military leaders, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, met to discuss Arafat’s declining health, Israeli security officials said. The military was placed on high alert, fearing riots if Arafat dies.
The Israeli military has not moved forces to anticipated problem areas, but commanders were told to be on standby. The army has a contingency plan, called “new leaf,” to deal with the fallout from Arafat’s death.
On Thursday, the military also discussed possible burial options for Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not permit Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital. Army chiefs said they also ruled out a burial in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis in the West Bank.
But Palestinians refuse to discuss arrangements as long as Arafat is alive. He could be buried in the Gaza Strip, where his family has a plot. An alternative would be the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The confusion over Arafat’s condition escalated after Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters at a summit of European leaders in Belgium that Arafat had died. He later retracted the statement.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Luxembourg government spokesman Lucien Michels said.
After Juncker’s initial statement, a spokesman for the French military hospital said Arafat was alive.
“Mr. Arafat is not dead,” said Christian Estripeau, head of communications for French military health services. “The clinical situation of the first few days following admission has become more complex.”
Juncker’s spokesman said the prime minister spoke after receiving a phone call while driving to the summit from a journalist, who relayed an Israeli television station report that Arafat had died.
Once inside the summit building, Juncker was corrected by French President Jacques Chirac, who had just visited Arafat in the hospital.
“Chirac spoke to him and told him it was not so,” Juncker spokesman Guy Schuller said.
In Washington, President Bush was asked by a reporter for his reaction to the report that Arafat had died.
“My first reaction is God bless his soul,” Bush said at a nationally televised news conference. “My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”