Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fell into a deeper coma Tuesday, French doctors and Palestinian officials said, indicating that the medical and political ordeal stemming from Arafat’s grave condition might be approaching an end.
After 12 days of secrecy and confusion, French officials and Palestinian leaders offered the most detailed and gloomy account of Arafat’s deteriorating health since he was rushed from the West Bank to a military hospital near Paris. The disclosures came after a top-level Palestinian delegation visited Arafat, was briefed by his doctors, and worked to restore a sense of dignity diminished by a dispute with Arafat’s wife.
French doctors confirmed for the first time Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority president was comatose, announcing that his condition had declined markedly overnight. The visiting Palestinians told journalists that the 75-year-old leader had been in a coma since Nov. 3 and was hooked up to a respirator and other equipment, but that his vital organs continued to function.
“The president is very ill,” said Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath. “His situation has deteriorated, especially since last night.... Having said that, having recognized the critical condition which President Arafat is in today, his brain, his heart and his lungs still function.”
The solemn tone of a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday afternoon suggested that Palestinian officials anticipated dire news.
In the heavily shelled compound where Arafat lived as a virtual prisoner for more than two years, Cabinet member Saeb Erekat announced that Arafat had suffered a brain hemorrhage. As he spoke, the normally steady Erekat fought back tears.
Erekat also offered the strongest indication so far that Arafat would be buried in the Ramallah compound, saying “all arrangements will take place in the Muqata,” as the battered site is known.
Neither French doctors nor the Palestinian delegation in Paris confirmed Erekat’s report of a brain hemorrhage. But an earlier statement by the spokesman for the Percy military hospital in Clamart sounded bleak.
“The state of health of President Yasser Arafat worsened during the night of Nov. 8 to Nov. 9,” said Gen. Christian Estripeau, a military doctor in charge of public affairs at the hospital. “The comatose state that caused his admission to the intensive care service has, this morning, deepened.”
This decline “marks a significant step” in the evolution of Arafat’s condition, Estripeau added.
Estripeau and Palestinian officials denied reports that Arafat had died. Shaath also dismissed rumors that Arafat might be disconnected from the machines that are helping keep him alive. Doctors had not suggested such a move, Shaath said, and Arafat was not in acute pain.
“I want to also rule out any question of euthanasia,” Shaath said. “People talk as if his life is plugged in and plugged out. This is utterly ridiculous. We Muslims do not accept euthanasia.... So he will live or die depending on how his body is able to resist and on the will of God.”
In addition, the foreign minister told journalists that the Palestinian delegation had resolved a conflict with Arafat’s wife, Suha. On Sunday night, Suha Arafat startled the Arab world with a diatribe during a telephone interview with the Arab television channel Al Jazeera. She lashed out at the Palestinian leaders, accusing them of planning a trip to Paris to “bury Arafat alive” and wrest his power from him.
Her outburst triggered anger and consternation among Palestinians. It also raised the uncomfortable prospect that, because French law gives family members tight control over medical privacy, she might not allow the delegation to visit Arafat or talk to his doctors.
But Shaath said there had been a rapprochement at the hospital Tuesday. He said Suha Arafat exchanged hugs and warm words with Shaath; Ahmed Korei, the Palestinian Authority prime minister; Mahmoud Abbas, the former prime minister; and Rouhi Fatouh, the speaker of the Palestinian legislature. The group chose Korei to visit Arafat’s bedside in the intensive care unit, where he spent about two hours, officials said.
Arafat’s wife authorized doctors to provide a complete update to the visitors, Shaath said. Suha Arafat, who had been largely silent before her Al Jazeera interview Sunday, had no comment Tuesday.
The foreign minister had warm words for Suha Arafat and said her recent statements resulted from psychological strain.
“We assured her of our love and sympathy and that she is the wife of the great man who is our leader and the mother of his only daughter. And that she would be always respected and protected by the Palestinian people,” Shaath said.
The effort to convey unity was partly directed at an international news corps that is riveted by the story, and partly at the audience back home. The ad hoc nature of arrangements so far, particularly a hurried airlift from the Ramallah compound Oct. 29, has apparently spurred Palestinian leaders to seek to restore a sense of solemnity diminished by the ordeal in a faraway land.
“We always thought Arafat’s leaving would be something dramatic, but to see him weakened and ailing and frail, and then away from public view -- people are angry, they’re hurt by this,” said former Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.
On Tuesday, Israeli officials did not contradict Erekat’s comment about a possible burial in Ramallah, which is just north of Jerusalem.
Erekat said the Ramallah compound would be fitting because it had become a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Arafat long expressed a desire to be buried in Jerusalem, but Israel vetoed that idea, fearing disorder and that Arafat’s burial might strengthen Palestinian claims to the city.
Arafat’s family has a plot in the Gaza Strip, but that cemetery is in poor condition.
Despite the new medical disclosures, the nature of Arafat’s illness remained mysterious. Doctors have ruled out cancer and poisoning, Shaath said.
The doctors’ theories point to a combination of Arafat’s age, his “difficult life,” and his lengthy confinement in a compound with deficient sanitation, Shaath said. Arafat developed digestive tract ailments that caused a devastating “chain reaction,” Shaath said.
The Palestinian officials left France late Tuesday.
Shaath said Taysir Tamimi, a prominent Islamic cleric in the Palestinian territories, was on his way to Paris.
Times staff writers Laura King in Jerusalem and Ken Ellingwood in Ramallah contributed to this report.