Palestine in turmoil as Arafat deteriorates

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Yasser Arafat was dangerously ill in intensive care in Paris last night after a bizarre and, at times, macabre day in which French medics were obliged to deny announcements by the media - and a European prime minister - that he was already clinically dead.

As leaders of the nationalist movements headed by the 75-year-old Arafat were summoned for urgent talks in his battered compound in this West Bank city, Christian Estripeau, a spokes-man for the Percy military hospital outside Paris, announced that he was still alive.

Rejecting earlier reports on Israeli television and on Radio Monte Carlo, Mr Estripeau told waiting reporters: "Mr Arafat is not dead." He added: "The clinical situation following the first days after [Arafat's] admission has become more complicated. The state of health of the patient requires appropriate treatment which necessitated his transfer during the afternoon of Wednesday, 3 November, to a unit suitable for his condition." The chairman of the Palestinian Authority was transferred to intensive care after his condition suddenly deteriorated.

As the Israeli Army was placed on alert for possible unrest and violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, the day reached a climax when the Luxembourg Prime Minister announced that the Palestinian President had already died. As he arrived at a European summit in Brussels, Jean Claude Juncker told reporters Mr Arafat "passed away 15 minutes ago".

He later retracted the statement after speaking to the French President, Jacques Chirac, who made the arrangements for the ailing Mr Arafat to be flown to Paris last Friday and who had gone to Mr Arafat's bedside for a half-hour visit earlier in the day.

Ashraf al-Kurdi, Mr Arafat's Jordanian doctor, made it clear last night that the exact nature of Mr Arafat's illness was still unknown. He added: "President Arafat does not have cardiac arrest or heart failure. He is still alive. He is not clinically dead. There is no brain death, but his condition is deteriorating. Because there has been no diagnosis, we don't know what's wrong with him."

And today the Palestinian envoy to France, Leila Shahid, told French RTL radio: "I can assure that there is no brain death. He is in a coma, we don't know the type but it's a reversible coma."

Amid the wildly conflicting reports about his condition, there were also still doubts last night about who was constitutionally in charge of the Palestinian Authority. But one Palestinian official said here that Ahmed Qureia, the Prime Minister, had taken over some of Mr Arafat's powers on security and finance. Mr Arafat has in the past successfully resisted international pressure to hand over control of the competing security and intelligence services to Mr Qureia and his predecessor, Abu Mazen, now emerging as a pivotal figure in any transition.

There was confusion but calm in Ramallah last night as shoppers thronged the busy streets as normal after a day of Ramadan fasting. One man, Yasser Alaneiti, said: "This is regrettable to see. He is the symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Of course I am sad. He is our President and beloved leader."

But despite speculation that factional fighting could break out after Mr Arafat's death, Mr Alaneiti added: "He will leave a big vacuum, but we will never get into Palestinian versus Palestinian conflict."

Many officials refuse to discuss the issue of where Mr Arafat would be buried if he dies. But the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon - whose top officials met to review the situation - has made it clear he will not allow Mr Arafat to be buried near the al-Aqsa Mosque - also sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount - as Mr Arafat has long made clear he wants.

There was growing speculation last night that, failing Jerusalem, Mr Arafat might, if he dies soon, be buried in Gaza. One Fatah official, Issa Karaqi, said Palestinians would prefer Mr Arafat to be buried in what they regard as their capital, Jerusalem. But, as an alternative, he would probably be buried in Gaza - which Mr Arafat has long regarded as his home - or Ramallah. Although he was born in Egypt, his family came from Khan Yunis in Gaza.