As Yasser Arafat slipped deeper into a coma Tuesday, a delegation of senior Palestinian officials dispatched from the West Bank offered the most detailed account yet about the cause and seriousness of the Palestinian leader's illness and called a truce in a war of words between them and his wife.
Like a group of uncles sent to restore tranquillity in a fractious family, the four officials met with Arafat's doctors and held a tearful meeting of reconciliation with his wife, Suha. Accompanied by her, one of them visited the bedside of the unconscious leader in the intensive care unit of the French military hospital where he has been battling for his life for the past 11 days, since he was airlifted here from his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
They emerged to tell reporters that Arafat's condition was deteriorating. But "his heart and his lungs still function and he is alive," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister. By Shaath's account, doctors are focusing on digestive tract ailments as the root cause of the coma.
Shaath said there were no plans to disconnect the machines that were sustaining Arafat's life. "People talk as if his life can be plugged in or plugged out -- this is ridiculous," he said. He added, "He will live or die depending on his body's ability to resist and on the will of God."
One of the goals of the mission, Shaath said, was "to end all of the speculation and all of the rumors" that have surrounded Arafat's illness since he became comatose last week. Still, there was another round of unconfirmed stories during the day. A report from the Reuters news agency, citing unnamed Palestinian sources, said that Arafat had died in the afternoon. But the report also said that, according to Palestinian sources, the Palestinians were awaiting the arrival in Paris of a senior Muslim cleric who would decide whether to disconnect Arafat's life support.
But Shaath and a spokesman for Percy Military Training Hospital, the cordoned-off facility where Arafat is being treated, denied he was dead. "The president is very ill," Shaath said. "His situation has deteriorated, especially last night."
Suha Arafat, who under French law has control over her husband's treatment and the release of information on his condition, had drawn a curtain of silence over his status since Wednesday, triggering rumors of his imminent demise and of plots against him.
Those rumors also reflect the mass anxiety over the fate of Arafat among Palestinians, who for four decades have viewed him as an icon of Palestinian nationhood and popular resistance against Israel.
Exasperation with his wife, coupled with concern that the leader's uncertain medical status was hobbling their attempts to organize a rational succession, led the senior Palestinians to embark on their mission to Paris. But when word of their plan arrived in Paris on Sunday night, Suha Arafat phoned the al-Jazeera television network and unleashed a tirade of accusations against the four officials, all of whom are longtime colleagues of her 75-year-old husband. They were conspiring to bury Arafat alive, she told al-Jazeera.
At first, Suha Arafat told the French authorities she would not allow members of the delegation, which arrived in Paris late Monday night, to see her husband, French officials said. But on Tuesday morning she relented, and agreed to allow them full access to the Palestinian leader's doctors. Besides Shaath, the delegation consisted of Ahmed Qureia, the prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, the former prime minister, and Rawhi Fattouh, speaker of the legislature.
The doctors "don't have a full understanding of why his status has deteriorated, which means that we don't really have a full diagnosis," Shaath said. "We know what it is not. It is not malignancy or cancer anywhere in his body, and the doctors today ruled out completely poisoning."
Arafat first fell ill with stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea about three weeks ago, and Shaath laid out a scenario that could put at least part of the blame on the Israelis, who have confined the Palestinian leader to his Ramallah compound since March 2002.
"The doctors by and large favor the explanation that his age . . . his difficult life . . . incarcerated in a very small office which had very little oxygen and very bad sanitary situation, in siege by the Israeli army, have contributed to a variety of digestive tract ailments," said Shaath, who said Arafat's blood had failed to produce enough platelets to maintain his vital organs.
The result, said Shaath, was "a chain reaction built over time that put him into a coma."
Shaath said a tearful Suha Arafat had embraced all four members of the delegation and welcomed them at the hospital despite her bitter words two days ago. They, in turn, assured her of their love and support and promised she would always be "respected and protected by the Palestinian people," he said.
Shaath attributed her previous outburst to "psychological tensions," concluding, "This is all over." Suha Arafat remained in the hospital compound and made no public statement.
Shaath said it would be "indecent to discuss somebody's burial while he's very much alive." But in Ramallah on Tuesday evening, Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat and senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdul Rahim said the Palestinian leader would be buried at his headquarters there, known as the Mukata, when he died.
"All the arrangements will take place here in Ramallah, in the Mukata," said Erekat, who struggled to hold back tears during the news conference.
Israeli officials would not comment on the statements. In the past, security officials have indicated they favor Arafat's small family plot in the Gaza Strip as the burial site, and Israeli political officials have so far ruled out burial in greater Jerusalem.
Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.