A gravely ill Yasser Arafat reportedly slipped into a coma and anxious Palestinian officials held an emergency meeting Thursday on how to prevent unrest while their 75-year-old leader was fighting for his life.
A swirl of reports that Arafat died were quashed by doctors at a French military hospital, who said he was alive. Arafat's aides, however, said his condition was very serious.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia assumed some of Arafat's financial powers, a Palestinian official said.
A senior Palestinian official said Arafat was in a coma in the intensive care unit.
Arafat's chief of staff, Ramzi Khoury, called an Associated Press reporter from Paris and told him: "I am standing next to the president's bed, he is in grave condition."
Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, told Israel TV's Channel Two that Arafat was still alive.
There also were media reports that Arafat had died or was brain dead. The Israeli network reported that Arafat was brain dead but remained on life support.
Kurdi told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV that a brain scan showed that Arafat had not suffered a hemorrhage or stroke.
"Arafat has no type of brain death," Kurdi told Al-Arabiya.
Anxious Palestinian leaders held an emergency meeting in the West Bank on Thursday. Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said top officials were in touch with Arafat's hospital every 30 minutes to check on his condition.
"The Palestinian leadership is in constant meeting to follow up on the president's health," Shaath said from Ramallah, where leaders of the PLO and Arafat's Fatah movement were meeting.
The PLO executive committee gave Qureia some of Arafat's financial powers so he could take care of urgent matters, committee member Qais Abdel Karim 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 current plans to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in a unilateral move not coordinated with the Palestinians.
Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas told the committee that Qureia will head to the Gaza Strip on Friday to order security chiefs there to show solidarity and not fight during this difficult time, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity.
There is concern in Israel about the fallout from Arafat's death or incapacitation. The Israeli army, which is on high alert, has a plan, called "new leaf," to deal with the fallout from Arafat's death, including possible Palestinian riots.
The Israeli military had not yet moved forces to anticipated problem areas, but commanders were told to be on standby.
Israeli security officials were meeting Thursday to study the repercussions in the Middle East should Arafat die, Israeli officials said. Top officials, including Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Army Chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, were to focus their weekly meeting on reports that Arafat's health took a sudden turn for the worse, the officials said.
Among Israel's plans are ways to prevent Arafat from being buried in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not permit Arafat to be buried in the city, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital.
Army chiefs said they were opposed to Arafat's burial in Jerusalem or the nearby suburb of Abu Dis in the West Bank. Arafat's family has a plot in the Gaza Strip.
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," government spokesman Lucien Michels said.
After Juncker's initial statement, a spokesman for the military hospital where Arafat was rushed Friday said he was still 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 visited Arafat in the hospital before leaving for Brussels.
"Chirac spoke to him and told him it was not so," spokesman Guy Schuller said.
Media reports also contributed to the speculation.
Israel's Channel Two cited a French Web site and Radio Monte Carlo as saying Arafat had either died or was clinically dead. The TV report was picked up by other stations, including Britain's Sky News.
In Washington, President Bush was asked by a reporter for his reaction to reports that Arafat had died.
"My first reaction is God bless his soul," Bush said at the 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."
Israel Radio reported that Mahmoud Abbas, No. 2 in the PLO hierarchy and a former prime minister, was on his way to Paris on Thursday.
Arafat was taken to intensive care after his condition worsened. Chirac went to the hospital Thursday and saw Arafat and his wife, "to whom he expressed his best wishes," Chirac's office said. The president also met members of the Palestinian Authority and doctors "who are doing everything possible for the health of the president," Chirac's office said.
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.
Arafat was rushed to the Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris for emergency treatment Friday. Since then, his condition has largely remained a mystery, with Palestinians issuing conflicting reports.
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