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Arafat on His Deathbed -- Or Not

Palestinian Leader's Condition Is Obscured by Rumor and Intrigue

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page A21

PARIS, Nov. 6 -- The word on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's health Saturday afternoon was brief and to the point. "There is no change, he is still in a critical condition," Nabil Abu Irdineh, one of his longtime senior aides, told a pack of reporters and cameramen who descended upon him when he entered the ornate lobby of the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel here.

While Abu Irdineh, looking tired and haunted, delivered a terse briefing at one end of the room, Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza Strip power broker who is one of Arafat's potential successors, paced a nearby hallway wearing a cell phone headset, firing off passionately punctuated sentences to a colleague back in the West Bank. And somewhere upstairs, Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's chief financial adviser, was meeting with unnamed persons for an unspecified reason.


A woman lights candles for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in front of the military hospital outside Paris where he remains in critical condition, according to a spokesman. (Christophe Ena -- AP)

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As Arafat, 75, fights for his life, two vigils are taking place here: one on the sidewalk outside the French military hospital to which he was airlifted from the West Bank eight days ago for emergency medical care, the other in this elegant, overstuffed antechamber of a grand dame hotel where room rates start at $390 per night, the smallest suites are $590 and Cokes go for $8 a bottle.

It's this latter site that seems most appropriate for what could be the climactic act of a peripatetic revolutionary, a man without a home who for four decades has embodied the aspirations and struggle of a people without a homeland. Before his longtime mortal enemy, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, confined him to the ruins of his bomb-scarred compound in Ramallah 2 1/2 years ago, Arafat had spent most of his life jetting between world capitals trailing an entourage as he pressed the case for Palestinian statehood and warred with his many foes, foreign and domestic.

The swirl of rumors, gossip and speculation is also in keeping with the life and times of an ambiguous tribal leader who has always played off subordinates and pretenders to his throne and has jealously guarded his role as the sole legitimate voice of Palestine.

The rumor du jour was that the leader was on the road to recovery. He had opened his eyes, pulled the tubes from his face and arms and demanded to know what was happening. Then there was the story, originating in the Israeli press, that Arafat had entrusted a political last will and testament to his wife, Suha, in which he named Farouk Kadoumi, considered the most radical member of his inner circle, as his successor. And there was the claim that the French authorities had discovered toxins in the leader's blood that suggested he had been poisoned back in Ramallah, presumably by Sharon's nefarious operatives.

All of these reports were heatedly denied by Arafat's entourage. But officials had virtually nothing to fill the information vacuum that has reigned here since Wednesday, when the Palestinian leader's condition deteriorated and the death watch began in earnest.

They themselves confessed they knew little. Whatever the French medical team treating Arafat has determined has been passed on to Suha Arafat, who has kept the information tightly held while insistently denying that her husband is near death. Earlier in the week Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, had issued daily bulletins about his condition. But Friday morning Shahid used the word "coma" to describe Arafat's state. Since then her appearances have ceased.

Suha Arafat is 34 years younger than her husband, lives in Paris with their 9-year-old daughter and had not seen the Palestinian leader for four years before she jetted to his side two weeks ago after he fell gravely ill. She has often expressed public scorn for her husband's cronies -- "every beautiful flower ends up surrounded by weeds," she once told a reporter.

The hostility is mutual. While Abu Irdineh, Dahlan and Rashid have not uttered a critical word in public or private to reporters, others have made clear the level of resentment the Palestinian leadership feels toward her. Yet under French law, she has ultimate control over her husband's medical treatment.

Back in the Gaza Strip Saturday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia met with more than a dozen security chiefs and representatives of militant groups to discuss law and order issues and their insistence on a collective style of leadership in the post-Arafat era.

"Our demand is to form a unified leadership," Sami Abu Zuhri of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, told reporters, according to Reuters news agency. "Under the circumstances and deterioration in the condition of Mr. Yasser Arafat, certainly this demand has become more urgent and more important."

Meanwhile, the entourage sat in the Intercontinental and waited. After a day of rumors and inertia, a weary Abu Irdineh spoke of the emotional attachment Palestinians felt for his longtime boss. "It's not like a president who serves five or six," he said. "For 40 years this man was in direct charge of the political decision, the financial decision, the social decision. His blessing was needed for everything -- from any small Palestinian community in Latin America to every refugee camp in the West Bank."

Dahlan, 43, has been in continuous conflict in recent years with Arafat, who pushed him out of his post as Gaza security chief and eyed him warily as a lean and hungry contender for power. Still, he said, Arafat had asked him to accompany him to Paris, and so he was here.

"There is a difference between political problems and personal feelings," said Dahlan, who added, "I like the chairman -- he's like my father."

Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company