With Yasser Arafat’s organs reported to be failing as he lay comatose in a French hospital, today brought a hastening drumbeat of preparations — in Jerusalem and Cairo, the West Bank and Paris — for what all seemed to believe was the Palestinian leader’s imminent death.
In a ritual somewhat akin to the administering of last rites, an eminent Islamic cleric was urgently summoned to the stricken leader’s bedside. Egypt officials said they were willing to host a VIP memorial ceremony in Cairo as Arafat’s body was en route home to the West Bank.
Israel’s Cabinet agreed to allow the funeral and burial to take place in Ramallah, the Palestinians’ political capital, despite security fears stemming from the fact that the West Bank city is only 10 miles from Jerusalem. And Palestinians readied ground for a grave in the compound that was Arafat’s prison for the last 2½ years — now expected to become tomb and shrine, a symbolic touchstone for the Palestinian people.
At the sandbagged, battle-scarred headquarters complex known as the Muqata, a collection of low-slung buildings set 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 75-year-old leader had lived and worked before being airlifted to France for medical treatment on Oct. 29. His close aides were seen inspecting a site near a cluster of scraggly pine trees, apparently earmarked for the mausoleum.
Returning to Ramallah early today from Paris, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told CNN that Arafat’s liver and kidneys were failing.
In Washington, President Bush that the possible change in the Palestinian leadership offered the 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. “And when that happens the United States of America will be more than willing to help build the institutions necessary for a free society to emerge, so that the Palestinians can have their own state.”
Around Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, which covers a city block, bright new Palestinian flags flapped in the breeze today. Pasted on the exterior walls were fresh posters of the ailing leader.
With the sound of heavy equipment audible outside, Palestinian leaders gathered at the complex for meetings aimed at setting rules of succession. The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main power structure, agreed to convene after Arafat’s death to choose a new chairman. The post seemed likely to go to the PLO’s No. 2, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
In addition, officials said they would follow Palestinian law by naming Rawhi Fattouh, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, as Arafat’s temporary successor as president of the Palestinian Authority. Under the law that in effect serves as the Palestinian constitution, Fattouh would serve until elections could be held within two months.
For those Palestinian officials, who have been Arafat’s close associates for decades, making death arrangements while he remained alive “is a very sensitive question,” said Hanna Amiereh, a member of the PLO executive committee. But, he said, “I think everything is going smoothly.”
Officials had considered altering the law governing succession, arguing that holding an election campaign might be logistically infeasible due to Israeli roadblocks and closures that curb movement in the Wet Bank and Gaza Strip. But the Palestinian leaders, for now, say they will plan on elections.
At the hospital on the outskirts of Paris, senior Islamic cleric Taysir Tamimi spent more than an hour with the comatose leader. Tamimi, who flew in from the West Bank at the request of senior Palestinian officials, said he had prayed for the recovery of his close personal friend. He noted that Islam forbade the disconnecting of life-support systems.
Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, described Arafat as being in the “final phase” of his life. “He is in the hands of God,” she said.
The agreement to bury Arafat in Ramallah marked a mode of decision-making that has become unfamiliar to Israelis and Palestinians over four years of bitter conflict: a compromise.
Israel had wanted the burial to take place in the Gaza Strip, which is tightly secured by Israeli troops and surrounded by a security fence. Palestinians had wanted the body interred in Jerusalem, a notion rejected by Israel because it could be seen as bolstering Palestinian claims to the eastern sector of the city as their capital.
Egyptian officials said Arafat’s funeral would likely be held near the Cairo airport, and that tentative plans were underway. But the funeral preparations were muddied by questions over Arafat’s health, one official said.
The office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel had agreed to a funeral and burial in Ramallah out of interest in “having arrangements take place in an orderly fashion.”
Over the past two weeks, the slow drip of information about Arafat’s condition has had the effect of psychologically preparing many Palestinians for news of the end.
“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 today.
“The new president will not be like Arafat,” he said. “No one will be like Arafat.”
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Megan K. Stack in Cairo contributed to this report.