Yasser Arafat, the man who embodied the cause of the Palestinian people for four decades, died at 3:30 a.m. Thursday at a hospital outside Paris, according to Palestinian and hospital officials. He was 75.
Arafat was flown to France nearly two weeks ago with what was said to be an intestinal disorder, but he lapsed into a coma and suffered a brain hemorrhage and liver and kidney failure. The doctors treating him in France never said publicly what caused the illness that led to his death.
Arafat died having never realized his lifelong dream of achieving an independent Palestinian state. Even so, he was beloved and revered by Palestinians as the symbol of their struggle for a homeland, which he nearly single-handedly kept alive for 40 years.
At the same time, the man who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Israeli leaders for forging the Oslo peace accords in 1993 was condemned by Israelis as a terrorist responsible for launching the Palestinian uprising and its campaign of suicide bombings more than four years ago.
According to Palestinian officials, Arafat's body will be flown to Cairo for a state funeral Friday and then will be buried Saturday at his battered headquarters compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he had been confined by Israeli troops for the past 21/2 years.
Arafat's duties heading the Palestinian Authority will be assumed by Prime Minsiter Ahmed Qureia. The Palestine Liberation Organization will be run by its deputy, former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. The speaker of the Palestinian legislature, Rawhi Fattouh, will take over the ceremonial role of president until elections within the next 60 days, Palestinian officials said. Officials had used the last two weeks of Arafat's failing health to try to ensure a smooth transition from a leader who had not groomed a successor.
Many leaders worldwide see Arafat's death as a possible catalyst for renewed peace efforts between Palestinians and Israelis. The current conflict has claimed more than 3,000 Palestinian lives and just over 1,000 Israelis. There have been no negotiations involving the two parties in more than a year.
President Bush said in a statement, "The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history. We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors. During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace."
Arafat was flown to France on Oct. 29 after suffering from digestive problems and a blood disorder. He was hospitalized at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart, a suburb of Paris, and slipped into a coma on Nov. 3. On Tuesday, he developed a brain hemorrhage.
The announcement of Arafat's death Thursday morning ended two weeks of international drama that included dozens of false reports of his death, days of secrecy over his condition and a farcical power struggle between his lieutenants and his wife, Suha, over the control of information about his health.
"Mr. Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, has died at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart on Nov. 11, 2004, at 3:30," hospital spokesman Christian Estripeau told reporters in a brief statement outside the hospital. He said that because of French privacy laws, no details on the cause of death would be provided by the hospital.
Under Islamic tradition, a person should be buried as soon as possible after dying, preferably within 24 hours. Taissir Dayut Tamimi, a senior Islamic cleric who heads the religious courts in the Palestinian territories, arrived at Arafat's bedside Wednesday to recite verses from the Koran and prepare his body according to Islamic custom, said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
The announcements Wednesday that Arafat would be buried in Ramallah ended days of tense speculation that Israel might prohibit a burial in the West Bank and instead force interment in a small family plot in a cemetery in the southern Gaza Strip, which Palestinian leaders said was unacceptable.
Erekat said Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, which has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance during the current uprising over Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would be turned into "a major Palestinian shrine" after Arafat's body is laid to rest there.
According to his aides, Arafat longed to be buried in Jerusalem, which Palestinians and Israelis both claim as their capital. But Israel has controlled the city since annexing its eastern half after the 1967 Middle East war, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who often refers to Jerusalem as Israel's eternal, undivided capital -- ruled out any burial for Arafat in "greater Jerusalem," which includes neighborhoods surrounding the city.
The choice of a burial site in Ramallah, which is about five miles north of Jerusalem, resolved an issue that Israelis and Palestinians could have argued about for days. On Wednesday, bulldozers and dump trucks were clearing Arafat's compound, known as the Mukata, of old cars, barrels filled with cement and other objects strewn around as a defense against Israeli incursions.
The decision to hold a formal state funeral in the Egyptian capital -- where Arafat was born, although he often claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace -- also resolved several potentially thorny issues, particularly whether leaders of countries that do not recognize Israel would visit an area under Israeli occupation and, if they did, whether Palestinian security forces could guarantee their security.
An Israeli official, who declined to be quoted by name because of a government prohibition against speaking about funeral arrangements before Arafat died, said Cairo was chosen because the Palestinians "wanted a place where all Arab leaders could come without hindrance, and we said we can accommodate all the people who want to come, but no doubt the security situation is a deterrence for Arab leaders who don't want to go over Israeli roads and pass through Israeli checkpoints or whatever."
Foreign dignitaries would still be allowed to attend any service in Ramallah, he said, but Palestinian officials doubted many would.
Erekat noted that many mourners at Arafat's funeral would be from countries that do not have relations with Israel, and so Cairo was a good alternative "to make sure there's no friction or problems." It was possible that the funeral would be held at Cairo International Airport, he said.
"President Arafat will lie in state in Cairo for some hours, and then he will be flown from Cairo to Ramallah, directly I think in Egyptian choppers, and this will be the temporary burial place, because the day will come when we will have an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, and President Arafat's body will be moved to the al-Aqsa mosque," he said.