Arafat in Coma, Lies Near Death

A militant with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction shouts slogans during a rally in Gaza City. Palestinian leaders are said to be worried about instability in Gaza upon his death.
(Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images)
Times Staff Writers

PARIS — Yasser Arafat remained alive but in grave condition in the intensive care unit at a military hospital here, with his Palestinian spokeswoman saying today he was in a coma.

Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, denied earlier reports that Arafat was being kept alive on life support. “He is in a coma,” she said.

Secrecy has shrouded the condition of Arafat, 75, since he fell ill three weeks ago at his battered West Bank compound, intensifying after he was airlifted to France on Oct. 29 for treatment of a mysterious ailment that had caused him to collapse. On Thursday, there was increasing confusion and reports that the Palestinian leader had died.

Despite the lack of firm information, it seemed clear that the Palestinian Authority president was fighting for his life at the Percy Army Teaching Hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart, where more than 150 journalists from around the world gathered in anticipation of grim news.

Arafat’s precipitous decline has raised fears of a chaotic power struggle in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian leader — a symbol of his people’s statehood aspirations for nearly four decades — has always refused to designate a successor.

In the West Bank, both of the main Palestinian leadership bodies — the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and the Central Committee of Arafat’s Fatah faction — met in closed-door sessions at the shabby headquarters vacated by Arafat last week. The sense of anxiety was palpable; Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters that senior Palestinian officials were speaking with French hospital officials every 30 minutes.

Senior Israeli officials, including the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, held their own gathering to discuss the potential repercussions of Arafat’s death. Israel has for many months had a military contingency plan, code-named “New Leaf,” in place in the event of an end to Arafat’s leadership.

French President Jacques Chirac paid a brief visit to Arafat about 3:15 p.m. and left without comment. Afterward, presidential aides told French media that Arafat was alive when Chirac visited him.

About 5:30 p.m., a high-ranking French military doctor gave a short statement emphasizing that Arafat was still alive. The statement was brief, he said, because Arafat’s family had requested “discretion.”

“Mr. Arafat has not died,” said the physician, Gen. Christian Estripeau. He said Arafat’s condition had worsened, requiring his transfer to a specialized unit Wednesday afternoon.

“Mr. President Yasser Arafat remains hospitalized,” Estripeau continued. “His clinical situation has become more complex.”

Arafat was transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit after his condition deteriorated sharply, another French official said. “His condition is grave,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

The French officials spoke during a day of mounting confusion, in which a number of reports surfaced that Arafat was in a coma, brain-dead or had expired.

Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg — speaking almost the same time that Estripeau was assuring journalists Arafat was alive — told reporters in Brussels that the Palestinian leader had died. Juncker later retracted that claim.

In Washington, the issue came up during President Bush’s televised news conference.

“I know you haven’t had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away,” said Bill Sammon of the Washington Times after being called on for a question.

“Really?” Bush responded.

“And I was just wondering if I could get your initial reaction. And also your thoughts on, perhaps, working with a new generation of Palestinian leadership.” Sammons continued.

“I appreciate that,” Bush replied. “My first reaction is, God bless his soul. And my second reaction is, is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”

As the president began his answer, Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, who sat in a front-row seat just a few feet from Bush, subtly shook her head, as if urging him not to answer the question.

Meanwhile, Israeli television and a French radio station reported that Arafat was brain-dead, quoting unnamed French sources. In addition, the French television network LCI reported that a French medical source had said Arafat was in a coma, on life support and had little chance of surviving.

Unlike on previous days, Palestinian Authority representatives in Paris did not give a news conference Thursday.

Arafat was accompanied to Paris from the West Bank city of Ramallah by aides and by his wife, Suha, who has lived in the French capital for at least the last four years. Only a few members of the large delegation of Palestinian officials who arrived in Paris with the stricken leader have been allowed to see him.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was said to have sharply ordered members of his Cabinet and senior government officials to refrain from any further public speculation about Arafat’s condition, lest it be interpreted as gloating. Israeli intelligence officials have said the Palestinian leader could be suffering from stomach cancer or a severe viral infection.

Before being whisked off to Paris, Arafat had been confined to his Ramallah compound for more than two years by Israeli forces, while Sharon worked tirelessly to sideline him diplomatically. Israeli officials repeatedly threatened to expel or assassinate Arafat, whom they considered the prime architect of a bloody struggle between Israel and the Palestinians that is now in its fifth year.

Arafat has denied the Israeli accusations of fomenting violence and orchestrating terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

The death or incapacitation of Arafat, who has dominated the Palestinian political scene since his days as a guerrilla chieftain in the 1960s, would open a new chapter in Middle East diplomacy — one fraught with peril as well as ripe with opportunity, veteran regional observers said.

The United States and Israel have refused for more than two years to have any dealings with Arafat, so a leadership change could revive long-moribund negotiations with the Palestinians. But any new Palestinian leader, or consortium of leaders, will have to tread extremely carefully to avoid being tarred as a lackey of Sharon and the newly reelected Bush.

“Even if one of those around him becomes his successor, that successor will have to stabilize his rule and win legitimacy, and will therefore not be able to engage in dialogue with Israel, which in the Arab world means a denial of legitimacy,” Israeli analyst Guy Bechor wrote in Thursday’s editions of the Yediot Aharonot daily.

Israeli officials already are deeply worried about an outbreak of violence in connection with Arafat’s funeral. The Palestinian leader has reportedly said his wish is to be buried in Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital. Sharon has said that will not happen as long as he is prime minister.

A possible compromise would be a site in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, but Palestinian sources — not wanting to address the question publicly because it would be unseemly before Arafat’s demise have flatly ruled that out. Arafat also has a family plot in the dismal town of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Israeli media reports on Arafat’s deteriorating condition noted that if the Palestinian leader was on life support, the decision of when and whether to disconnect him would be an extremely politicized and highly sensitive one.

Aides have strenuously sought since the beginning of Arafat’s illness to portray him as still able to make decisions. But provisional power appeared to have passed primarily into the hands of Mahmoud Abbas — a former Palestinian Authority prime minister and the No. 2 in the PLO’s hierarchy — together with current Prime Minister Ahmed Korei. Reports on Thursday said Abbas was flying to Paris, but his trip was apparently delayed while a larger delegation was assembled.

After decades of all-but-unquestioned rule by Arafat, admitting the gravity of his condition has been taboo among elite members of his circle. Shahid, has issued daily updates painting him as a man on the mend. She told reporters Wednesday that he had asked about the U.S. election results.

The latest turn for the worse, including the reports that Arafat was suffering multiple organ failure and was drifting in and out of consciousness, was greeted with a new round of denials Thursday afternoon.

“No coma,” Korei told reporters in Ramallah. “His condition is not getting better, nor is it worsening.”

Other aides dismissed reports emanating from Paris as “rumors.”

Ordinary Palestinians have grumbled for years over incompetence and corruption within Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Even so, the Palestinian leader has always inspired a sense of loyalty and protectiveness among his people.

“I believe after Arafat there will be a vacuum — I don’t think anybody can fill his place,” said Khader Jabali, a 57-year-old father of seven who brought his family to Arafat’s headquarters, known as the Muqata, after hearing the latest medical reports.

“I have serious doubts about a future without him.”

His status as symbol and icon notwithstanding, Arafat has weathered real-world challenges in recent months, including a serious outbreak of internal unrest in Gaza targeting those seen as his allies. Senior Palestinian officials are said to be particularly worried about a wave of instability in Gaza upon his death.

But because any overt power grab now would be seen as disrespectful toward a man revered as a kind of founding father, all parties including the main Palestinian militant groups have been acting with unusual decorum since the health crisis began.

“Even Hamas is being stately so far,” said Israeli researcher Moshe Marzouk, who is a lieutenant colonel in the army reserve.

Despite all efforts to push Arafat aside, Israeli officials have been somberly acknowledging his departure from the scene will be a momentous event.

Israel’s director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, was quoted in Israeli press reports as telling lawmakers in a closed session this week that Arafat’s passing would carry “the potential for an earthquake in Palestinian society.”

“Arafat’s death will change the scenery completely,” said Ehud Yaari, a Channel 2 commentator. “The landscape won’t be the same without him in it.”

Rotella reported from Paris and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.