RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been ailing for more than a week, collapsed and fell briefly into unconsciousness Wednesday night at his compound, Palestinian officials said.
Doctors and senior aides were urgently summoned to the 75-year-old Arafat's half-ruined headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Palestinian officials said a three-member committee had been chosen to handle day-to-day affairs in the event that Arafat — who has always refused to designate a successor — cannot.
Though there have been scares over Arafat's health before, this is the first time any kind of panel has been named to take over in case he becomes incapacitated.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said that all Palestinian security forces had been ordered to report for duty.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have long feared that Arafat's death or incapacitation could trigger a slide into chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli media reported this year that the Israeli army had rehearsed war game scenarios of riots breaking out across the Palestinian territories on Arafat's death.
The Palestinian Authority president, under virtual house arrest by Israel in his West Bank headquarters since 2002, has been sick for more than a week with what associates have variously described as a bad case of the flu, gallbladder disease or both.
Arafat's collapse was reported by two Palestinian officials who cited a witness account and spoke on condition they not be named. Publicly, however, aides denied that the situation was critical.
"His situation is stable and not worrisome," Nabil abu Rudaineh, a senior Arafat aide, told reporters who gathered outside the battered Ramallah compound, known as the Muqata. "But he needs rest and care." Asked if Arafat was unconscious, would need surgery or had otherwise taken a turn for the worse, Azzam Ahmad, Arafat's minister of telecommunications, repeatedly responded: "Absolutely not! Absolutely not!"
Early today, Reuters quoted one official as saying Arafat joined morning prayers at his compound, though he was still very ill.
Wednesday, aides said tests, including a biopsy and blood work, had ruled out intestinal cancer as a cause of Arafat's severe recurring stomach pains. On Tuesday, reports cited a member of his medical team as saying the Palestinian leader had a large gallstone, which was painful but did not pose a serious threat to his health.
Prime Minister Ahmed Korei and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, were among those who arrived at the Ramallah compound for a late-night visit Wednesday. Both men were once close to Arafat and for many years were considered his likeliest successors, but both quarreled sharply with him after becoming prime minister.
Abbas quit last year, accusing Arafat of sabotaging him, and Korei has also threatened to step down. Despite those rifts, sources said the two men, together with senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Salim Zanoun, were named to the emergency committee. Arafat approved a decree creating the panel, the sources said.
After spending about an hour in the compound, Abbas and Korei left together, in what some interpreted as a sign that Arafat was stable for the time being.
Abu Rudaineh told reporters that both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II had offered to send medical teams to tend to Arafat. A team of Tunisian medical specialists has been in Ramallah since last week.
Arafat's estranged wife, Suha, who lives in France with their daughter, Zahwa, was expected to arrive in Ramallah today, Palestinian officials said.
All day Wednesday, well-wishers in SUVs and air-conditioned sedans arrived in a steady stream at the compound, some waved through and others turned away. Now and then, an Israeli army jeep would make a circuit of the dusty street outside the compound's high walls.
In four decades as the standard-bearer for the Palestinian cause, Arafat's trademark has always been an air of indestructibility. He has survived guerrilla warfare, internal feuds, assassination bids and a plane crash.
For many Palestinians, even those who bitterly resent the pervasive cronyism and corruption in his government, Arafat remains a living icon of statehood hopes, the only leader they have ever known.
But he has always been an autocrat who regards any potential successor as a threat. Again and again, he groomed charismatic aides such as Mohammed Dahlan, his former security chief in Gaza, only to repudiate them when they grew too powerful or popular.
"Everyone is afraid of a leadership vacuum," veteran Palestinian analyst Ziad abu Amr said. "So no matter how many official statements are issued saying his life is not in any danger, there is concern and anxiety, even among his enemies — it can't be otherwise."
When word of Arafat's latest medical troubles surfaced, even Israeli officials who in the past have openly expressed the wish to assassinate him or otherwise get rid of him showed unease.
Because Israel fears being blamed for Arafat's death or critical illness, the Defense Ministry took the unusual step this week of announcing that the Palestinian leader was free to leave his headquarters. Israeli military authorities reiterated Wednesday night that they would not interfere in any way with his transport to a hospital.
"Do we wish him well? I certainly couldn't say that," a senior Israeli official said. "But are we hoping for his imminent death, there in the Muqata? I couldn't say that, either."
For many months, Israel has not physically enforced Arafat's confinement, which began more than two years ago amid the worst fighting of the current 4-year-old Palestinian uprising. In spring 2002, Israeli troops seized control of nearly all the West Bank's major cities and besieged Arafat's compound, shelling it and sending tanks to punch holes in the perimeter wall.
But this year, Israeli officials have let it be known Arafat can leave the complex, though they might destroy it to prevent his return. They also indicated that if he left the Palestinian territories, he probably would find himself in permanent exile.
Israel insists that Arafat's continued hold on power has brought peace efforts to a standstill. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration refuse to have any dealings with him, denouncing him as a terrorist mastermind. But Arafat denies those accusations, and diplomats from Europe and elsewhere regularly travel to Ramallah to confer with him.
But the long confinement has weakened Arafat's connection with ordinary Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad not only lead the fight against Israeli troops but also have long-term political ambitions. And the Palestinian leader's illness has already altered the dynamic of a battle that broke out this year within his Fatah faction of the PLO.
"There's already a serious power struggle, and the perception of even greater weakness on Arafat's part may intensify that," Israeli analyst Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University said. "Already people were criticizing him much more freely than before, and now they are relating to him as an old and ill man."
In the event of his death, Palestinian law provides for the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council to assume leadership for 60 days, a period which could be extended. The current speaker is Rouhi Fatouh, who is not seen as having the political clout needed to serve as more than a stopgap successor.
Palestinian general elections — which would give an indication of who, besides Arafat, was in popular favor — have been long delayed.
Within his compound, Arafat has lived a spartan life, eating simple meals and sleeping in a sparsely furnished room that looks out over a parking lot with sandbags and the remnants of luxury cars crushed by tanks during the 2002 Israeli offensive.
"When I saw how primitive it was, I felt sorry for him," said Mamdouh Akar, a doctor at Ramallah's premier private hospital who visited Arafat this week. "It's pathetic. It's not clean, there's no good ventilation or light. It wouldn't be healthy for anyone."
Akar would not discuss the Palestinian leader's condition. Those around Arafat enforce a palace culture of secrecy comparable to that in the Soviet-era Kremlin, letting slip only carefully filtered bits of information.
Aides, as well as official Palestinian media, have for days deflected suggestions that Arafat's illness is anything serious. "Rumors circulated by Zionists," said a red-lettered headline in Wednesday's editions of the Al Ayyam newspaper.
Arafat has long been thought to suffer from Parkinson's disease. But his aides and doctors have not publicly confirmed that he has the degenerative ailment.
Even before Arafat's health apparently worsened Wednesday night, a makeshift clinic had been set up in the compound, complete with X-ray equipment and ultrasound machines. Two doctors were said to be in round-the-clock attendance.
Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, began nearly two weeks ago, and Arafat normally adheres to its strictures. On doctors' orders, though, he had taken food and water in the last two days, aides said.
During past health scares, Arafat's associates jovially predicted that he would outlive them, as well as whoever was posing the question. This time, though, references to mortality have crept into even the traditionally sunny prognosis.
Before Wednesday night, Shaher Habash, a member of Fatah's Central Committee and one of relatively few people to have free access to Arafat during his illness, said he expected the Palestinian leader to resume his duties soon.
"But he's old," Habash said. "It will take time."
Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times