An old feud between the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his senior advisers erupted into an extraordinary public brawl Monday after Suha Arafat accused the aides of plotting against her husband and they accused her of blocking access to the ailing leader and withholding information about his health.
The dispute spilled onto the streets outside Arafat's battered compound here as Palestinians staged a protest against Suha Arafat, 41. Many people in Ramallah said she married Arafat only for his money and disparaged her for moving to Paris four years ago during an Israeli military siege. Some complained that she was turning a national tragedy into an international farce.
"Where were you when the president was under siege?" said a placard held aloft by a small group of women at the entrance of the compound. "The patriotic Palestinian woman is in the front lines, not the hotel."
The uproar began early Monday morning when Suha Arafat, speaking in distraught tones, charged in a phone call to the al-Jazeera television network that aides were conspiring to "bury Abu Ammar alive." Her husband is widely known among Palestinians as Abu Ammar.
She spoke as the Palestinian leader, 75, was fighting for his life in a military hospital outside Paris, reportedly in a coma and on life-support machines. No official diagnosis of his condition has been released since he arrived at the hospital 10 days ago.
Gen. Christian Estripeau, the chief spokesman at the hospital, told reporters that the Palestinian leader was stable, but remained in emergency care and could not receive visitors.
Suha Arafat is the Palestinian leader's onetime secretary and is 34 years his junior. Ever since she married him 14 years ago, she and many top Palestinian officials have been at odds. Resentment against her is also widespread among other Palestinians, who call her an unfit partner for a man they regard as the embodiment of the Palestinian national cause.
"This woman in the past was not involved in Palestine, she didn't even care, not even about her husband," said Manel Shami, 36, who lives a few doors away from Suha Arafat's family home in Ramallah.
The dispute also highlights tensions between the Arafat family's right to privacy and the desire of the Palestinian public and government to know about his health. Under French law, Suha Arafat has control over access to her husband and information about his medical condition. A senior Palestinian official, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the controversy, said she has kept out all visitors since Friday.
"I understand the human angle, but he is not just a husband, he's a head of state, and people need to know his condition," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian parliament.
The argument nearly derailed a planned visit to Paris by a group of high-level Palestinians seeking to see Arafat for themselves. The delegation, which included Mahmoud Abbas, general secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, abruptly canceled its trip after Suha Arafat's televised salvo, then rescheduled it a few hours later.
The officials reached Paris late Monday, but it was unclear if they would be able to see Arafat, according to cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
In view of Arafat's status among the Palestinian public, the people who have taken temporary command in his absence appear anxious to avoid being accused of usurping his authority.
But some officials and citizens said that in her call to al-Jazeera, Suha Arafat seemed to be suggesting that the visiting officials wanted to unplug Arafat's life-support systems. She said she was issuing "an appeal to the Palestinian people. . . . You have to realize the size of the conspiracy. I tell you, they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive," she screamed into the phone.
"We express our utmost regret at the comments made by sister Suha," Qureia told reporters at the start of a cabinet meeting here, before leaving for France. Arafat "belongs to the Palestinian people," he said.
Judging from interviews in Ramallah, Suha Arafat's attempt to go directly to the people backfired. "We don't know why she said that," said Adel Jaffa, 48, the owner of a bakery. "Some people say she wants the money, some say she's a tool. Every day we hear a new story, and we are afraid for the future."
But Lina Akel, the owner of a bookstore and publishing house, said she was "moved emotionally" by Suha Arafat's remarks.
"Burying him alive is something really bad. Why don't they wait until he dies naturally? Why do they have to remove the machines? I think that's what they're going there for -- they want to remove the machines," she said. "It's too soon."
Correspondent Glenn Frankel in Paris contributed to this report.