Arafat going to Paris for treatment
RAMALLAH, West Bank – An ailing Yasser Arafat – too weak to stand and unable to hold down food – left his battered West Bank compound Friday in a Jordanian helicopter en route to Paris for urgent medical treatment, leaving behind the sandbagged headquarters that had been his virtual prison for nearly three years.
The 75-year-old Palestinian leader’s planned departure Friday, a decade after he arrived in the West Bank with the promise of statehood, could mark the end of an era. Arafat, who hoarded power and declined to groom a successor, leaves behind a people in disarray.
Blood tests revealed he had a low platelet count, though it was unclear what caused the ailment, his doctors said, ruling out leukemia. In deference to his deteriorating condition, Israel lifted its travel ban on Arafat, allowing him to leave his battered headquarters compound in Ramallah for the first time since 2002 and to return if he recovers.
Arafat was permitted to fly in a Jordanian helicopter for one day in 2002 to view the aftermath of an Israeli siege, but he hasn’t traveled abroad since visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in November 2001.
Two camouflaged Jordanian helicopters landed outside Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah at sunrise Friday. Overnight, bulldozers had cleared a makeshift landing pad in the courtyard, pushing aside wrecked cars and rubble, reminders of previous Israeli military raids.
Dozens of people, many of them in military-style uniforms and green berets, whistled and chanted as they ran alongside two limousines and an ambulance carrying Arafat and his aides to the helicopters. Arafat was flying to Jordan by helicopter and from there to France on a plane sent by French President Jacques Chirac.
Reporters at the gates of Jordan’s Marka Military Airbase saw a convoy of 19 cars carrying the Palestinian, French, Egyptian and Algerian ambassadors and the U.N. chief delegate in Jordan into the base under a light drizzle.
Palestinians across the Middle East anxiously monitored Arafat’s health Thursday, but there was no mass vigil around his compound or any other public displays of support.
“I pray to God to save him because we need him, he is the safety valve for everything here, he is the father of all the Palestinians,” said Imad Samara, a 38-year-old teacher from Gaza City.
In a rare show of Palestinian unity, the militant group Hamas said Friday it was setting aside its differences with Arafat and wished him a quick recovery.
Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, called for the “formation of a united national leadership” and preparations for general elections. In the past, Hamas said it wanted nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority, a product of peace deals with Israel.
Palestinian officials tried to play down Arafat’s health problems on Thursday, saying he performed Muslim prayers before dawn and ate a light breakfast of cornflakes and milk.
They released a brief video and two photos showing him sitting in a chair, wearing blue pajamas and a dark stocking cap and smiling broadly as he posed with his doctors Thursday afternoon. In the video, he holds two of his doctors’ hands and leans over to kiss one of them.
Dr. Ashraf Kurdi said there was no immediate threat to Arafat’s life. “His condition is good, his spirits are high,” Kurdi said.
But the seriousness of his condition was underscored by the rushed arrival of Arafat’s 41-year-old wife, Suha, who lives in Paris with their young daughter and has not seen her husband since 2001.
A close associate said Arafat spent most of Thursday sleeping. When he awoke, he was too weak to stand and was put in a wheelchair, the associate said on condition of anonymity. Arafat has been unable to hold down food, and also suffers from diarrhea, the associate said. At times, Arafat appeared confused, not recognizing some of his visitors, he added.
Doctors later said he had a low platelet count. That can indicate a variety of problems, including bleeding ulcers, colitis, liver disease, lupus and chicken pox.
His doctors recommended he be moved to Paris, where he can receive better medical care.
Despite Israel’s promise to let Arafat return, his deteriorating condition and his departure from the West Bank are likely to change Palestinian politics dramatically.
Several potential successors were already reported jockeying for position, a development that could transform relations with Israel. The Israeli government has refused to deal with Arafat, saying he was fomenting terror and is not a partner for peace.
“Whatever will be, we are seeing Arafat being sidelined. A new situation has been created, that could be for the better, or worse,” said Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician and former peace negotiator.
“It can be better, because there is a group around Arafat, veterans of the Palestinian political system, who are pragmatic and believe in the peace process,” he said, referring to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former premier Mahmoud Abbas.
The Bush administration, which has also tried to sideline Arafat, said it hopes he gets proper medical care.
“This is not a political matter for us,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “This is a matter of seeing that an ill person gets the medical care they need for health.”
Arafat had been ill for two weeks, with Palestinian officials insisting he was suffering from a persistent flu, and doctors saying he had a large gallstone. Israeli officials speculated Arafat had stomach cancer, but his doctors said tests ruled that out. The Palestinian leader has shown symptoms of Parkinson’s disease since the late 1990s.
Arafat’s condition sharply deteriorated Wednesday evening when he vomited after eating soup, then collapsed and was unconscious for about 10 minutes, a bodyguard said.
The Palestinian leader has groomed no successor, and many feared his death would spark chaos and violence throughout Palestinian cities and villages.
“If he dies, it’ll be tragic for the Palestinians,” shop owner Mahmoud el-Azza, 58, said in Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan. “It’ll take 100 years for someone to fill in his place.”
In an effort to show that their leadership is not paralyzed, Palestinians were to convene two bodies in Arafat’s absence – the Palestinian Cabinet and the executive committee of the PLO, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former minister and close confidant of Arafat.
“We admit that things will not be easy,” Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press, “but we will try our best for full coordination … and we will consult with president Arafat on the important issues.”
Arafat has been a virtual prisoner in Ramallah for nearly three years, confined by Israeli threats, sieges and his own fears of being banished forever.
He has remained in the massive, walled compound since December 2001, when Israel destroyed his helicopters after a surge in Palestinian attacks. The following month, Israel placed tanks outside the compound’s gates.
After three separate sieges in 2002, the compound’s walls were torn down along with most of the buildings. Arafat sleeps and works on the second floor of a three-story, tan, cement building.
Arafat’s only respite came after a 34-day Israeli siege in April 2002, launched in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing. Under a U.S.-brokered deal, Arafat was permitted to fly in a Jordanian helicopter for one day to view the aftermath of the fighting.
Since then, Arafat has remained holed up in the battered compound, fearing that if he leaves Israel should never allow him to return.
At various times, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted at expelling or even killing Arafat, although he has refrained from taking any action under pressure from the United States.
Sharon, in a telephone conversation Thursday with Qureia, agreed to allow Arafat to be flown abroad for treatment. Israeli officials said they feared a backlash in the Arab world if the country is perceived as contributing to Arafat’s death.
In a flurry of meetings, Israeli leaders also talked about what might happen after Arafat’s departure or death. Israel has prepared contingency plans for Arafat’s death, including how to deal with possible riots and prevent Palestinian attempts to bury him in Jerusalem.