Arafat's condition reportedly deteriorates

Palestinian, 75, said to collapse

battle over succession looms

October 28, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Yasser Arafat's health sharply deteriorated last night, and doctors rushed to the battered West Bank compound where the aging Palestinian leader has been living under Israeli army siege for 2 1/2 years.

Details of the 75-year-old leader's condition remained murky this morning amid a flurry of contradictory information from various Palestinian officials.

Some said Arafat had collapsed and fallen unconscious for several minutes; others vehemently denied the reports.

Feeling ill, Arafat summoned his current and past prime ministers, Ahmed Queria and Mahmoud Abbas, to his bedside in Ramallah.

He vomited a short time later while eating soup, officials said, and was then taken to a medical clinic inside his compound, where his condition continued to deteriorate.

One official said Arafat authorized a three-person team to run the Palestinian Authority during his illness. Another said it wasn't true.

Officials said more doctors - including his private physician - were to arrive today from Europe, Jordan and Egypt, and they are considering moving Arafat to a nearby hospital.

Israeli officials said they had granted permission for Arafat's wife, Suha, to visit him from Paris.

"He's sick and he's gotten somewhat worse," said Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, who lobbies on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in Washington. He spoke to Arafat by telephone Tuesday and said he sounded weak.

The chaotic hours and conflicting information issued last night demonstrate how ill-prepared the Palestinian Authority is for Arafat's demise. The subject is considered taboo to discuss, as are details about his medical state, to keep people plotting for succession off guard.

Last night and early today, hundreds of Palestinians made a pilgrimage to the Muqata compound and held a vigil for Arafat. The courtyard, still stacked with cars crushed by Israel's army during a raid in April 2002, was bathed in bright lights. An ambulance was parked outside. Officials, reporters and the curious milled about.

Cancer ruled out

Inside the sandbagged walls, at 1:30 a.m., an aide said that Arafat was sleeping. He fell sick two weeks ago, and officials at the time said he was suffering from the flu. On Tuesday, doctors from Egypt and Tunisia, working in a makeshift clinic inside the compound, reported they had found a large gallstone that, while painful, was not life-threatening.

Doctors later said that blood tests and a biopsy ruled out stomach cancer, as some Israeli officials had suggested. Now, officials say Arafat might be suffering from a low white blood cell count, though they said further tests are needed.

The worsening medical crisis immediately raised questions about succession should Arafat die, and how to replace a man who embodies the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian Authority rules say that the speaker of parliament, now Rauhi Fattouh, becomes the leader for 60 days until new elections are held.

State of crisis

But Fattouh is a virtual unknown and is untested in the turbulent world of Palestinian politics. There are suggestions that a collective leadership might take over to help stabilize what is sure to be a fractious struggle for control.

The authority is in a state of crisis, with armed gangs ruling Palestinian cities. Several people, some with the backing of one or more of the competing armed security forces, are likely to vie for power in what many officials have warned could be a bloody fight.

Even before Arafat fell ill, violent struggles erupted in the Gaza Strip involving police and militant factions, such as Hamas, fighting for control of land that Israel is considering relinquishing next year as part of its unilateral disengagement plan.

There are several prominent Palestinians who could take over.

Abbas, who gained favor in Washington and Israel, resigned as prime minister last year after a struggle with Arafat over control of the security services. Queria, who has worked on many peace deals, could be a contender, but he has been largely ineffectual as prime minister and lost the respect of many of the people.

Waiting in the background are Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, two former police commanders who make no secret about their hatred for each other. The most popular Palestinian is Marwan Barghouti, who represents a young generation of leaders but is in an Israeli jail serving time for murder.

Uncertainty and strife

Observers say that it could take years for a Palestinian leader to emerge, which could prolong the deadly conflict with the Israelis and cause the internal strife to worsen.

Israeli leaders blame Arafat for instigating and now not stopping a bloody four-year uprising, and say that his refusal to relinquish control of his competing security services has stalled an American-backed peace initiative called the road map.

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