Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died before dawn today at a French hospital where he was being treated for a mysterious illness, his doctors and Palestinian officials announced.
Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thousands of grieving Palestinians rushed into the streets to mourn their leader of nearly four decades -- a towering figure to his own people, but one reviled by Israel as an architect of years of bloody conflict.
Fearing an outbreak of unrest, the Israeli army went on alert and quickly closed off the Palestinian territories.
The announcement by French authorities, echoing the terse language of medical bulletins of recent days, shed no light on the cause of death.
“Mr. Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, died at the Percy military hospital in Clamart on Nov. 11 at 3:30 a.m.,” said Gen. Christian Estripeau, a physician who heads the institution in suburban Paris to which the 75-year-old leader had been flown Oct. 29 after collapsing at his West Bank headquarters. Arafat fell into a coma last week, and his condition had steadily deteriorated since.
At almost the same time the Paris statement was released, tearful Palestinian officials at Arafat’s battle-scarred, sandbagged compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah also announced that he was dead.
“The Palestinian leadership declares to the Palestinian people ... that our leader and teacher, the son of Palestine and its symbol and the founder of its revolution for freedom and independence, died this morning,” said Arafat’s longtime secretary, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, in an emotion-choked voice.
As word of Arafat’s death spread, Palestinians began converging on his Ramallah compound, many in tears. Though he never achieved his dream of Palestinian statehood, his people revered him as a founding father.
Moussa Khattab, a 25-year-old laborer, arrived on foot along the dusty street, sobbing. “My head is spinning -- I don’t believe it,” he said. “For the rest of my life I’ll be in mourning.”
Mohammed Sharawi, a 47-year-old merchant, drove up in a sedan plastered with posters of Arafat, accompanied by his wife and 6-year-old son.
“You know what it means when you lose your father,” he said. “This is the feeling of a son toward his father.”
In Gaza City, Palestinians poured into the streets. Youths fired guns into the air and burned tires, sending a pall of black smoke over the city. The plaintive wail of a mourning prayer announcing and lamenting Arafat’s death and intoning verses from the Koran rang out from the main mosque.
At dozens of other mosques, Islamic fundamentalists from the Hamas movement used loudspeakers to announce the news: “The leader, Abu Amr, has passed. We pray for God to give him mercy and to have him in heaven. We will all return to God.”
Israel’s government was reserved in its initial reaction, not wanting to inflame the sentiments of Palestinians by speaking ill of their dead leader, though certainly not wanting to eulogize Arafat either. President Moshe Katsav expressed hopes the Palestinians would choose a new leadership that would put an end to violence.
A more raw and emotional reaction came from Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, who told Israel Radio that he had despised the Palestinian leader.
“I hated him for the deaths of Israelis.... I hated him for not allowing the peace process ... to move forward,” Lapid said. “It is one of the tragedies of the world that he didn’t understand that the terror that began here would spread to the entire world.”
Palestinian officials were expected to swear in the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Rouhi Fatouh, as acting president, later today. They also decreed a 40-day period of mourning in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Arafat’s body was to be flown to Cairo by the French military for a memorial ceremony Friday for dignitaries from the Arab world and beyond to pay their respects.
The funeral and burial in Ramallah is to be delayed until Saturday, Palestinian officials said.
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 2 1/2 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, the main decision-making body, agreed to convene after Arafat’s death to choose a new chairman. The post was due to go to the PLO’s No. 2, 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, with elections to be held as soon as possible.
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. But for now, they say they plan to hold elections.
At the hospital on the outskirts of Paris, senior Islamic cleric Taysir Tamimi had spent more than an hour Wednesday with the comatose leader.
Over the last two weeks, the slow trickle of information about Arafat’s condition has helped prepare many Palestinians for news of his demise.
“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, Ellingwood from Ramallah and Rotella from Paris. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Gaza City contributed to this report.