Israel had reportedly been concerned that a service Friday — the last Friday of Ramadan, when huge crowds of worshipers traditionally throng the mosques — could spiral out of control.
For days, it had appeared clear that the end was near for Arafat.
On Wednesday, a flurry of preparations took place — in Jerusalem and Cairo, the West Bank and Paris — for what all seemed to believe was the Palestinian leader's imminent death.
An eminent Islamic cleric was urgently summoned to the stricken leader's bedside for a ritual similar to the administering of last rites.
Israel's Cabinet agreed to allow a funeral and burial in Ramallah, where Palestinian political institutions are based, despite security fears stemming from the fact that the West Bank city is only 10 miles from Jerusalem. Palestinians readied ground for a grave in the headquarters compound that was Arafat's prison for most of the last 21/2 years and that was now expected to become his tomb and shrine.
At the headquarters known as the Muqata, a collection of low-slung buildings in a rubble-strewn compound in central Ramallah, earthmoving equipment began clearing away dozens of mangled cars that had been piled in long rows as a line of defense against Israeli military incursion.
It appeared that the grave would lie close to the shell-damaged building where the Palestinian leader had lived and worked.
In the final hours, aides who had been reluctant to acknowledge how ill he was were notified by telegram that his death was imminent. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told CNN late Wednesday that Arafat's liver and kidneys were failing.
In Washington, the White House released a statement in which President Bush called Arafat's death "a significant moment in Palestinian history."
"We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors," the statement read. "During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace."
Hours earlier, Bush had said the possible change in the Palestinian leadership offered hope for resurrecting the peace process.
"There will be an opening for peace when leadership of the Palestinian people steps forward and says, 'Help us build a democratic and free society,'" Bush told reporters.
The militant Islamic group Hamas, meanwhile, issued a statement saying Arafat's death would "increase our determination and steadfastness to continue jihad and resistance against the Zionist enemy."
The Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee today chose as its new chairman the PLO's No. 2 official, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
In addition, officials said they would follow Palestinian law, which serves as the constitution, by naming Fatouh, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, as caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority. Under the law, Fatouh would serve for 60 days.
Officials considered altering the law governing succession, arguing that holding an election might be infeasible because of Israeli roadblocks and closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Over the last two weeks, the trickle of information about Arafat's condition has helped prepare many Palestinians for his death.
"We can't imagine what will happen after Arafat is dead," said Mohammed Swaiti, 22, who joined a group of Palestinian students making a pilgrimage to the Muqata on Wednesday.
"The new president will not be like Arafat," he said. "No one will be like Arafat."
King reported from Jerusalem, Stack from Cairo, Rotella from Paris. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Gaza City and Ken Ellingwood from Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.