PARIS — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrived Friday at a military hospital south of Paris 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 the Villacoublay military airfield about 1:30 p.m. and then was boarded onto a helicopter for a 15-minute flight to 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 in the West Bank smiling and blowing kisses — reportedly has 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 team 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 had undergone tests and was being treated for intestinal flu but that doctors had yet to determine the more serious problem.
"Obviously there is more to it than" the flu, Shahid said, as police patrolled the hospital's rooftop amid tightened security across the city. "Examinations will take many days" before doctors decide on a "real diagnosis," she said.
Even before Arafat left Middle East airspace, Israeli commentators were increasingly characterizing him as a spent force, regardless of whether 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 Friday'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 Authority president "a political dead horse."
About a dozen people waving Palestinian flags made their way past Paris police officers and lingered outside the Percy hospital, anxious to support Arafat, who for more than two 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, a scandal erupted when the government allowed guerrilla George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to fly to Paris for medical treatment. A decade earlier, the French military evacuated Arafat from Beirut when he was under Israeli siege.
The U.S. views Arafat as corrupt and an impediment to peace, but for much of France, he epitomizes the Palestinian struggle for statehood. He is viewed fondly by many here, and French support of Arafat over the years has enabled Paris to exert more influence in the Middle East.
The French daily Liberation said Friday: "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 did not portend a hidden political agenda by the French.
"I don't think this has a deep political meaning," Roy 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 Mazen, who is the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee. Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Korei are on a three-member panel that has been given temporary day-to-day authority over Palestinian affairs.
Israeli officials declined to elaborate Friday on why they reversed their long-held policy so that Arafat would be allowed to return to the West Bank. Previously, Sharon's government had said that if the Palestinian leader left, he would find himself in permanent exile.
According to news reports, Israel feared being blamed 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 as a sudden quiet 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 Islamic prayers.
But Friday morning, the sliding steel gate stayed mostly closed, with no cars pulling into the walled complex. Four guards sat around with little to do. Above the compound, Palestinian flags waved under leaden skies. On one building, an oversized banner depicted 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 whether he expected to see Arafat return, Samara thought for a moment. "It's in God's hands," he said. "There is hope."
Times staff writers Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and Ken Ellingwood in Ramallah contributed to this report.