A French hospital official, speaking hours after an aide said Yasser Arafat had slipped into a coma, said late Friday that the Palestinian leader’s condition had not deteriorated further.
“The state of health of President Yasser Arafat has not worsened,” said Gen. Christian Estripeau, the chief physician at the hospital in suburban Paris where the 75-year-old Palestinian leader has been under treatment for the last week for a still-undisclosed illness. “He is considered to be stable.”
Early Friday, Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, told French radio that Arafat was in a coma and hovering “between life and death,” but gave no details. She explicitly denied reports that he was brain-dead.
In the Palestinian territories, Arafat’s people seemed to be bracing for the likelihood of his demise, or at least his disappearance from any leadership role.
“He is the one who protected our land and our people,” said Mahmout Zakkout, a 23-year-old university student in the Gaza Strip. “For that, we respected him.”
Gaza was the scene of a meeting Friday among rival Palestinian factions to demonstrate unity in the face of what many believe is Arafat’s imminent death.
Arafat has not named a successor, and even before he fell ill three weeks ago, the Palestinian territories had been roiled by internal disputes. Gaza had been the scene of the worst unrest.
“We are here today to reflect our unity,” said Mohammed Hindi, a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad militant group, which attended the gathering at the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza City.
Israeli officials have been preparing for potential unrest if Arafat does die. The biggest source of tension, in their view, will be his funeral.
The most senior Islamic cleric in the Palestinian territories said Friday that Arafat wanted to be buried in Jerusalem.
“From a religious perspective, we must and need to honor his will,” said the mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri.
The holy city is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said there is no way he will allow Arafat to be laid to rest in Jerusalem. The Palestinian leader’s clan has a burial plot in Gaza.
“We have no problem with Gaza” as a burial site, Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid told Israeli television.
Palestinian leaders have signaled their intention to fight for Arafat to be buried at the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the most hotly disputed holy sites in the region.
Arafat’s funeral would probably be attended by dignitaries from throughout the Arab world, many of whom he had bitterly quarreled with.
Israel’s refusal to allow him to be buried anywhere in Jerusalem stems in part from military intelligence warnings that a mass funeral march could spiral out of control and allow would-be attackers to slip into Israel proper.
Palestinian officials said they were offended by the notion that the funeral would be used as cover to stage attacks.
“Israel ... has to be sensitive at this critical time of Palestinians’ feelings and emotions regarding their president,” said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
Arafat was flown to France on Oct. 29 after falling ill at his West Bank compound -- where he in effect has been under house arrest for more than two years. His aides variously described him as suffering from a bad case of flu or gallstones; Israeli intelligence has speculated he has a serious viral infection or cancer of the blood or intestinal tract.
In Arafat’s absence, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the current premier, Ahmed Korei, have taken on what Palestinian officials say is temporary responsibility for day-to-day affairs. Privately, many Palestinians say they believe the two will share leadership, at least in the short term, once it is clear that Arafat is permanently incapacitated or dies.
Mohammed Hourani, a member of the Palestinian parliament from Arafat’s Fatah faction, predicted that no overt power struggle would break out while the leader was alive.
“I’m sure all sides -- even Hamas -- feel that in this critical moment, we should act as a group,” Hourani said, speaking outside Arafat’s bombed-out compound in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “We first should keep the internal peace.”
Rotella reported from Paris and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Ramallah contributed to this report.