Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was suffering from a serious illness early Thursday and undergoing treatment by a team of international doctors at the battered headquarters compound where he has been confined for more than two years, according to Palestinian officials.
Arafat, 75, has been sick for about a week and has been examined and treated by doctors from Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. Doctors and aides have described his illness variously as a severe flu, an intestinal infection and gallstones. Earlier this week, doctors said he underwent an endoscopy to examine his digestive tract.
Israeli intelligence officials have speculated that he has stomach or colon cancer, which Palestinian officials have denied.
Dozens of reporters were gathered outside Arafat's compound Thursday morning as rumors spread that he was going to be transferred to a local hospital. Palestinian television stations were airing testimonials to the leader as grim-faced and tight-lipped members of the Palestinian legislature circulated in and out of the compound. Most declined to comment.
"Everything you hear is rumor," said Gazi Hanania, deputy speaker of the legislature. "President Arafat is sleeping."
Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, told reporters that the Palestinian leader was "in stable condition, but he is still in need of more rest and more medical care." He would not discuss the nature of Arafat's illness or provide any details, other than to say Arafat had not lost consciousness.
"The president is seriously sick," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian political analyst and reform advocate who was among the visitors to the compound. "He has had serious problems with his gastrointestinal system. He has not been able to eat, and he's been vomiting."
Barghouti said two more teams of doctors were expected to arrive from abroad Thursday "to make sure we have the right diagnosis."
Arafat, regarded by his people as a revolutionary icon and by Israelis as a duplicitous terrorist, is president of the Palestinian Authority, the entity created under the 1993 Oslo peace agreement to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for signing the Oslo accords.
As chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization since 1969, Arafat has been the undisputed head of the Palestinian people and a symbol of their fight for an independent homeland. At the same time, many people inside and outside the Palestinian territories have denounced his rule as corrupt, ineffectual and authoritarian. He has been accused of liquidating enemies and competitors for power.
For decades the Palestinians' point man in peace talks with Israel, Arafat in recent years has been marginalized by Israeli and U.S. officials, who have refused to meet with him, accusing him of fomenting Palestinian terrorism.
Under international pressure, the Palestinian legislature two years ago created the position of Palestinian prime minister. Foreign leaders and many Palestinians hoped the move would dilute Arafat's control and usher in an era of reform, but Arafat has jealously hung on to his power. Recently, even some of his staunchest supporters have begun agitating for him to relinquish some of his authority. He has no heir apparent.
If the Palestinian Authority's president dies in office, leadership of the authority passes to the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council for 60 days until elections can be held for a new president. Control of the PLO would be transferred to the organization's general secretary.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said early Thursday that after being contacted by Egyptian authorities and by former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, Israel had agreed to provide any medical assistance or equipment necessary for Arafat's treatment. He said that the Israeli military would aid the arrival of any foreign doctors to visit Arafat and that Arafat had been given permission to travel "anywhere in the world" for medical treatment.
Gissin would not say whether Arafat would be allowed to return to his headquarters compound in Ramallah -- or to any other part of the West Bank or Gaza Strip -- if he went abroad for treatment. "That's not the issue right now," Gissin said. "We are dealing with a humanitarian, medical issue right now, and all the other issues can wait."
Arafat has refused to leave his compound for more than two years, fearing that the Israeli military would not allow him to return and would expel him to another country.
Gissin said Arafat's wife, Suha, who lives in France, had been issued a permit to travel from Jordan directly to Ramallah on Thursday to visit her husband.
Anderson reported from Jerusalem.