With Yasser Arafat gravely ill in a hospital near Paris, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, were chosen Thursday to temporarily assume the Palestinian leader's duties, according to senior Palestinians familiar with the arrangements.
Arafat, 75, had reportedly slipped into unconsciousness, and a former adviser said he was on a respirator, but the day was marked by confusion, including false reports that he had died. A spokesman at Percy military hospital outside Paris said Arafat had not died but that his condition had become "more complicated."
The French military spokesman, reading a brief statement he said was authorized by Arafat's wife, Suha, also confirmed that the Palestinian leader had been transferred Wednesday afternoon to a hospital unit "suitable for his condition."
Palestinians from the key organizations headed by Arafat met in emergency sessions at his headquarters compound in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, and at other locations in the West Bank to decide how to run Palestinian affairs.
They decided that Qureia would retain control of operations for the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip established 10 years ago by the Oslo peace accords. He will also head the National Security Council. Arafat is president of the authority and chairman of the council.
Abbas will be in charge of both the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that represents Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and abroad, and of the Fatah political movement, the most powerful Palestinian political organization, the officials said. Arafat is chairman of both.
The selection of two men to replace Arafat reflects his status among Palestinians as the unrivaled symbol of their cause. No one else matches his stature and ability to unite the diverse factions and groups in Palestinian society.
"Palestinians look at Arafat not as the president and chairman, but as the father of the nation," said Ahmed Tibi, a former adviser to Arafat who is now a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and who attended several meetings in Ramallah. "The only one who deserves to raise the flag over an independent and free Palestine is Yasser Arafat."
The decisions to put Qureia and Abbas at the helm of the most important Palestinian institutions during the current crisis were made at a series of high-level meetings Thursday in Ramallah, according to Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel.
The meetings and appointments "are intended to show there's no vacuum, and that Palestinian institutions can function and will function" regardless of Arafat's condition, Erekat said.
Neither Qureia, 66, nor Abbas, 69, has Arafat's charisma, and neither is particularly popular among Palestinians, who in opinion polls have complained that their government is ineffectual.
But both Qureia and Abbas are well-known establishment figures who over the years have developed good working relations with senior Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Both also are well-known internationally and have had substantial contacts with senior U.S. officials.
Both, but particularly Abbas, have been outspoken critics of Palestinian terrorism and have condemned the decision by radical groups to wage a suicide bombing campaign against Israelis. Both have also engaged in power struggles with Arafat, trying to force him to relinquish his control over Palestinian security organizations and implement democratic reforms.
Neither succeeded. Abbas, the first person ever to hold the prime minister's job, resigned in September 2003 after four months in office. One of his main complaints was that Arafat would not reform the security agencies. Qureia, his replacement, resigned in July, but retracted the resignation when Arafat agreed to security reforms. However, Arafat never delivered on the pledge, and the two have continued to feud over the issue.
As Arafat's health deteriorated Thursday, Palestinian officials met in nearly nonstop emergency sessions. Some meetings were held in Arafat's heavily damaged compound in Ramallah, then continued at Abbas's home nearby, Palestinian officials said. In the official meeting chambers of Arafat's governmental center, officials left his chair at the head of the table empty.
Arafat never groomed a successor and often thwarted rivals from gaining power.
In recent months, well before Arafat's illness, the Palestinian Authority was embroiled in factionalism and dissent. Younger members demanded change, rival security forces in Gaza battled in the streets and militant organizations agitated for more financial support for their members and for the impoverished refugee camps where most of their families live.
Reaction to Arafat's deteriorating condition was subdued in the face of a barrage of conflicting media reports of his imminent death and statements from Palestinian officials attempting to play down the severity of the situation.
"He created this monument, the Palestinian entity," said Hind Barghouti, 50, a high school principal who stood outside the Ramallah compound with her two children and about 300 others in an impromptu vigil. "He is the symbol of the Palestinian people. The least I could do is come and rally around the compound to show my support."
But crowds outside the headquarters where Arafat spent the last 21/2 years -- never leaving for fear that Israeli soldiers would force him into exile or kill him -- were subdued compared with the boisterous mobs of thousands who have collected there during past Palestinian crises.
In Israel, there were high-level meetings much of the day as senior government officials from various agencies debated how to deal with potentially thorny problems should Arafat die. Sharon said at a cabinet meeting Sunday that he would not allow Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and senior officials were discussing what to do if the Palestinians demanded a Jerusalem burial.
Another potential problem was how Israel would react to a state funeral in the West Bank that could draw Arab and Islamic dignitaries from such enemies of Israel as Libya and Iran. Leaders of those countries and others from the Middle East would likely fly into Amman, the Jordanian capital, then attempt to enter the West Bank over the Allenby Bridge, a major border crossing under Israeli army control about 25 miles east of Jerusalem.
Special correspondent Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.