PARIS — Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrived at a military hospital south of Paris today to undergo treatment for a mysterious illness that has severely weakened him and added an unpredictable dynamic to Middle East politics.
Traveling on a French military jet from Jordan, Arafat landed amid tight security at a Villacoublay military airfield about 1:30 p.m. and then boarded a helicopter for a 15-minute flight to the Percy Army Teaching Hospital in Clamart. With his wife, Suha, walking at his side, Arafat was wheeled on a gurney into the medical center, which specializes in trauma and blood diseases.
The 75-year-old leader — who hours earlier left his compound in Ramallah smiling and blowing kisses — reportedly suffers from a low platelet count, which prevents blood clotting and can indicate a range of illnesses including cancer. He briefly lost consciousness Wednesday evening and the contingent of Arab doctors treating him in Ramallah urged him to seek specialized treatment.
Arafat's ailment remained unknown hours after he checked into Percy. Leila Shahid, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation in France, told reporters outside the hospital that Arafat underwent immediate testing. She said he was being treated for intestinal flu, but doctors had yet to determine the more serious problem.
"Obviously there is more to it than" the flu, said Shahid, as police patrolled the hospital's rooftop and security tightened across the city. "Examinations will take many days" before doctors decide on a "real diagnosis."
Even before he left Middle East airspace, Israeli commentators increasingly characterized Arafat as a spent force regardless if he recovers sufficiently to return to the Palestinian territories.
"Critically ill or dead, from this week onward Arafat is not what he once was," Israel's premier political commentator, Nahum Barnea, wrote in today's editions of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "Palestinian history will have to move on without him."
Military affairs analyst Roni Shaked, also writing in Yediot, called the Palestinian leader "a political dead horse."
About a dozen people waving Palestinian flags funneled through Paris police officers and meandered outside the Percy hospital, eager to support Arafat, who for the last three years has been confined to his battered Ramallah compound by Israeli forces.
"I am waiting for Yasser Arafat to tell him that we are with him," said Fatima Mera, a French citizen of Moroccan background. "We hope he will leave here and continue the struggle for the Palestinian people."
In a welcoming letter to Arafat, French President Jacques Chirac, who was in Rome for the signing of a European Constitution, wrote: "I wish to express my deepest sympathy and warmest wishes for your recovery."
Chirac, who has kept a close relationship with Arafat over the years and who dispatched the military jet to pick up the former guerrilla leader, added: "France, as you know, backs the aspiration you embody for the creation of a viable, prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state alongside a state of Israel assured of its security."
Editorials in French newspapers mused over Arafat's arrival in Paris and its meaning to the Middle East. The French have a tradition of taking in troubled Palestinian leaders. In 1992, the French government sparked a scandal by granting medical treatment to guerrilla George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A decade earlier, the French military evacuated Arafat from Beirut while he was under siege by Israeli forces.
For much of France, Arafat, viewed as corrupt and an impediment to peace by the U.S., epitomizes the Palestinian struggle for statehood. He is viewed fondly by many here and French support of Arafat over the years has allowed Paris to exert more influence in the Middle East.
The daily Liberation said today: "For three years now, Yasser Arafat, prisoner in a building falling in ruins where he was barely having any visitors, was 'out of the game' under the will of his enemy Ariel Sharon. But (Arafat's) 'gastric flu,' which obviously hides something more serious, and his travel to Paris raised emotion and concern in the Arab world."
Olivier Roy, a French historian and Arab analyst, said Arafat's arrival in Paris does not portend a hidden political agenda by the French. "I don't think this has a deep political meaning," he said. "Arafat had to go somewhere. It's a gesture toward the Palestinians for humanitarian reasons."
Before leaving Ramallah, the Palestinian leader, wearing a green overcoat and a gray cap, told his supporters: "God willing, I will come back."
In Arafat's absence the main decision-making powers appeared to be coalescing in the hands of his former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Ala, who is the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Abbas and current Prime Minister Ahmed Korei are members of a panel that has been given temporary day-to-day authority over Palestinian affairs.
Israeli officials declined to elaborate on why they reversed their long-held policy so that Arafat would be allowed to return to the West Bank. Previously, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said if the Palestinian leader left, he would find himself in permanent exile.
Israel had feared being blamed, however, if Arafat had died while confined to his headquarters, or even if he were hospitalized elsewhere in the Palestinian territories. The Maariv newspaper said Sharon had told aides in closed talks that it was preferable that the Palestinian leader "die abroad — far away from here."
Less than an hour after Arafat's departure, his tattered Ramallah compound looked more forlorn than usual. His absence was already noticeable in the sudden quiet that fell over the headquarters complex, which would normally have been abuzz with officials arriving for meetings, even on Fridays, when most Palestinian offices close down for Muslim prayers.
But this morning, the sliding steel gate stayed mostly closed, with no cars pulling into the walled complex. Four guards sat on plastic chairs with little to do. Above the compound, Palestinian flags waved lazily under leaden rain clouds. On one building hung an oversized banner depicting Arafat during more robust days, grinning broadly and with hands aloft in a sign of victory.
"Things have changed," said one of the police guards, Ayman Samara. "People don't yet believe that he is not here." Asked if he expected to see Arafat return, Samara thought for a moment. "It's in God's hands," he said. "There is hope."
Staff writers Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and Ken Ellingwood in Ramallah contributed to this report.