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With Arafat in Coma, Near Death, Conflict Mounts Over Burial Site

Israelis Say Jerusalem Not an Option for Palestinian Leader

By Glenn Frankel and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page A17

PARIS, Nov. 5 -- Palestinian officials acknowledged Friday that Yasser Arafat was in a coma and struggling to survive, while Israeli officials issued blunt warnings that they would not allow the Palestinian leader to be buried in or near the disputed capital of Jerusalem.

"Arafat is in a critical state between life and death," Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, told RTL radio here, in the first official acknowledgement that Arafat, 75, was hovering near death.

Children clean the grave of Yasser Arafat's sister at the family plot in the Gaza Strip, a possible burial site for Arafat. (Mohammed Salem -- Reuters)

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"I assure you that he is not brain dead," she added. "He is in a coma. We are not sure what type. But it is a reversible coma." Senior Israeli officials said Arafat was being kept alive by life-support devices.

Later Friday evening, a French medical spokesman told reporters gathered outside the Percy military hospital in Clamart, a southwestern suburb of Paris, that Arafat was in "stable" condition and "has not gotten worse." The spokesman, Christian Estripeau, refused to elaborate, citing the need to "fully respect the privacy that the family has requested."

With death an imminent possibility, Israeli and Palestinian officials began arguing over questions of where to lay to rest the man who for four decades has been the embodiment of the bitter quest for Palestinian statehood.

People close to Arafat said his wish was to be buried in Jerusalem; senior Israel officials insisted he would not be buried in "greater Jerusalem," a term that encompasses the city and the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it. Some said the only place that would be acceptable was in the Gaza Strip, where Arafat's family has a burial plot outside the southern city of Khan Younis.

Officials on both sides said no discussions on the issue were underway, contradicting news reports that American and French diplomats were acting as intermediaries in private talks. Neither the U.S. Embassy here nor the office of President Jacques Chirac would discuss the matter.

But Israeli and Palestinian officials did trade statements on the issue. Palestinians "will choose where to bury him, but he will not be buried in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists," Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Associated Press Television News.

Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said:

"He will not be buried in greater Jerusalem, in the same manner that if Osama bin Laden were killed, he would not be buried in Arlington National Cemetery."

Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian cabinet, the chief negotiator with Israel and a longtime Arafat confidant, said Arafat had "always dreamed about Jerusalem" as his burial place. "The Israelis should be more sensitive to this issue," he said.

The statements punctuated another day in which rumors swirled in Paris, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza over Arafat's condition. Early in the day, sources reported that Suha Arafat, his wife, was on the verge of giving her consent to take him off the respirator that has maintained his breathing since Wednesday, when he first slipped into unconsciousness. But as the day wore on, there was no announcement of any such move.

In her radio interview Friday morning, Shahid, the Palestinian envoy, suggested Arafat had slipped into a coma after he was put under anesthesia Wednesday for medical tests, including internal examinations and a biopsy of his spinal cord. But medical experts said it was unlikely that medication had caused Arafat's coma and suggested it was far more likely that a deterioration in his condition had caused the coma.

Arafat was airlifted to the French hospital a week ago from his battle-scarred compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah after complaining for two weeks of nausea, stomach cramps and other symptoms. Palestinian officials at first attributed his discomfort to intestinal flu but later conceded his condition was more serious. Doctors have ruled out stomach cancer and leukemia but have not issued a definitive diagnosis.

Only three Palestinians -- Suha Arafat; Nasser Kidwa, who is Arafat's nephew and a Palestinian observer at the United Nations; and Ramzi Khoury, who is Arafat's longtime chief of staff -- are said to have regular access to the patient's bedside, and they have released no statements. In the information vacuum, a Palestinian and Israeli rumor mill has been working overtime.

"We all know that clinically he is dead, but we won't interfere with internal Palestinian affairs," said the Israeli justice minister, Lapid, who cited no source for his claim. "They'll announce his death when they find it proper."

Arafat has not named a successor, and his illness has plunged Palestinians into anxiety over who will take his place if he dies and how the new leadership will prevent an outbreak of violence among armed factions that have struggled for supremacy with each other as well as with the Israeli army.

Two of Arafat's longtime colleagues, Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the former prime minister, have been chosen to run a collective leadership group in an attempt to maintain internal peace.

Anderson reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maria Gabriella Bonetti in Clamart contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company