Middle East

Middle East

Yasser Arafat Hovers Between Life and Death

Police stand guard in front of journalists

Policemen stand guard in front of journalists outside the Percy military hospital in a Paris suburb on November 7, 2004. (Photo: Joel Robine/AFP-Getty Images)

International leaders and newspapers around the world have engaged in cautious speculation about Yasser Arafat’s condition, medical diagnosis and chances of recovery.

Arafat was said to have been well enough Wednesday to welcome Bush's re-election and, according to one of his aides, said he hoped for a jumpstart to the moribund Middle East peace process.

"The state of President Yasser Arafat's health has not worsened. It is considered stable since the previous health bulletin," Christian Estripeau, head of communications for French military health services, said in a brief statement.

"I can assure you that there is no brain death," Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France told French RTL radio. "He is in a coma. We don't know the type but it's a reversible coma. ... Today we can say that, given his condition and age, he is at a critical point between life and death."

French President Jacques Chirac added a note of caution to the many conflicting reports about Arafat's health. "I would take care about referring to a before or an after Arafat," Chirac told a news conference in Brussels.

Doctors have ruled out leukemia but remain puzzled why Arafat's health deteriorated sharply last week at the Paris hospital, where he has been having tests since he was flown from the West Bank on Oct. 29.

"He has liver failure. His condition is not improving," according to a Palestinian official in the West Bank who declined to be named. "One option being considered is moving him to Cairo."

"The doctors are examining everything and we completely trust our French doctors. We do not yet have a final report on Arafat's health," Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said, when asked whether the 75-year-old leader may have been poisoned. "President Arafat is undergoing tests ... All options are open," he added.

Medical observers note that a low blood platelet count is a sign of a weakened immune system, and indeed last week there were reports of a complete collapse of Arafat's immune system. Other than the ruled-out cancer, the low count could be attributed to bleeding ulcers, colitis, liver disease, lupus, or HIV.

"Israel is preparing for a possible escalation in violence following the death of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told ministers at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, adding that the Palestinian leadership that is taking shape in Ramallah is working to put an end to terror attacks. The remarks by Mofaz came one day after Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei asked Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip to refrain from launching terrorist attacks in Israel in the absence of Yasser Arafat.

Khaled al-Batsh, a leader of the Islamic Jihad movement, said Palestinians feared Israel would take advantage of Arafat's death to attack.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak said his government is working to bring together rival Palestinian groups to discuss a future leadership structure.

Israel has ruled out a highly symbolic Jerusalem burial for Arafat whose Palestinian constituency sees the city as Islam's third holiest site and capital of a future Palestinian state. Arafat made clear that he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, where he was born. "Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. It's not a city where we want to bury an Arab terrorist, a mass murderer," Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said.

Meanwhile, Israel has finalized plans for Arafat to be buried in the Gaza Strip if he dies of his illness, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the cabinet on Sunday.

The Palestinian president's father is buried in the Gaza Strip. Burying Arafat there would suit Israel since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to withdraw all troops and settlers from the occupied territory next year.

Palestinian officials said another option might be the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat was penned in by Israel at his headquarters for more than two and a half years. One official said Palestinian leaders are hoping to enlist international support for a burial at the Al Aqsa Mosque. Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat said it was inappropriate to discuss the burial issue while Mr. Arafat was alive.  

Until her arrival in Ramallah nine days ago, Suha, who, at 41, is 34 years younger than Arafat, had not seen her husband for more than three years. During that time, she has been living in luxury in a hotel in Paris, supported by a reported $100,000 (£55,000) monthly allowance from her husband.

She re-emerged last week as a powerful figure at the ailing leader’s side, effectively vetting entry into his hospital room. It is said even Nabil Abu Radieneh, Arafat’s chief of staff and most trusted lieutenant, has been prevented from seeing him. Her motives are unclear. But the vast internationally donated fortune under Arafat’s control may be a clue. Suha is widely believed to have control of vast funds collected by the PLO.

As Arafat’s condition has deteriorated in recent weeks, the estimated $10 billion (£5500 million) windfall has become an increasingly urgent factor. It is believed to be kept in a mysterious network of accounts and dispensed in various forms of patronage.

Senior Palestinian figures close to Arafat have made frantic efforts to discover the location of these funds, but to little avail. With his health failing, Arafat recently told the finance minister, Salem Fayad, to ensure the Palestinian Authority’s army and public sector workers receive their salaries. Fayad is said to have replied by informing him there was no money in the public coffers to pay the salaries.

With the Eid festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan approaching in a few days time, it is still unclear if and how salaries will be paid. This has added to the mood of widespread anxiety and uncertainty.

Mr. Shaath, Mr. Qurei and Mr. Abbas plan to leave for Paris on Monday afternoon. Palestinian officials have said the caretaker leadership is frustrated at the lack of information about Mr. Arafat's health, which was being filtered by his wife. "We want to hear directly from the doctors about the health of President Arafat," Mr. Shaath told reporters on Monday.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of journalists waiting outside the hospital have failed to obtain any confirmation of the rumor that Arafat is unconscious and hooked up to artificial respiration machines.

There are also reports that his situation is reversible, that he woke up from his coma on Friday and even spoke to his doctors and that his doctors induced his coma by choice, to spare him the suffering of a brain hemorrhage.