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Palestinians Project an Air of Calm Ahead of Report on Arafat's Health

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 1, 2004; Page A15

JERUSALEM, Oct. 31 -- French doctors are expected to issue a preliminary report on the medical condition of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by midweek, according to Palestinian officials, who attempted to project an atmosphere of normality in their government Sunday during a scheduled National Security Council meeting.

Palestinian officials offered conflicting accounts of Arafat's health, with some aides reporting that his spirits and physical abilities were improving and others, who declined to be quoted by name, saying that his condition remained critical.


Supporters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raise their hands in prayer for him during a demonstration in Gaza City. (Kevin Frayer -- AP)

"We should not jump to conclusions," Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister and chief negotiator with Israel, said in a telephone interview. "Let the doctors in France announce this themselves. They are the only ones that know what is going on."

Arafat, 75, flew to Paris on Friday for a battery of medical tests after a precipitous decline in his health. It was the first time he had left his heavily shelled government compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah in nearly 2 1/2 years. He became ill more than two weeks ago with severe vomiting and diarrhea. After his health deteriorated suddenly on Wednesday, some aides reported that he was near death.

Erekat said that despite announcements to the contrary, doctors have not yet ruled out any disease or illnesses as the cause of Arafat's declining health. A Palestinian official reported earlier that doctors had ruled out leukemia.

Erekat said he had received reports from aides in Paris that Arafat read from the Koran on Sunday morning for the first time in 10 days, walked around his room and telephoned his finance minister, Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah to make sure that the salaries of government employees were being paid on time because the holy month of Ramadan ends soon and marks a period of gift-giving among Muslims.

"He is not suffering from any serious problem," Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Irdineh, told reporters Sunday in Paris, according to the Associated Press. "His situation is curable. He will recover soon. It is better than expected."

But another aide, who is also in Paris but would not be identified by name, described Arafat's condition as "very bad" and "unstable."

Two Palestinian governing bodies met in Ramallah this weekend as officials tried to demonstrate that the Palestinian Authority and the international umbrella organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization, are functioning despite the absence of Arafat, who heads both.

The Palestinian National Security Council session Sunday was chaired by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. A meeting on Saturday of the PLO Executive Committee was run by Mahmoud Abbas, who is the second in command of the panel after Arafat.

Erekat said the National Security Council discussed continuing efforts to curtail violence among competing Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, met Sunday for their weekly cabinet meeting, focusing on various scenarios for potential unrest in the West Bank and Gaza if Arafat becomes incapacitated or dies.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom implied that Israel's army would "demonstrate restraint" in its operations in the Palestinian territories until details of Arafat's condition and the Palestinian leadership become more certain.

"These are days of waiting," Shalom told Israeli Army Radio on Sunday, "and during such days you act perhaps with a bit more caution."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly told cabinet members that "Israel has made a commitment to allow Arafat to return to the territories" after his medical treatment, according to Israeli news accounts.

But Sharon also said: "So long as I am prime minister, Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem," according to the reports. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, and Palestinians want it to be the capital of a Palestinian state.


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