Arafat ‘between life and death’ as row erupts

By Cynthia Johnston and Wafa Amr, Paris

YASSER ARAFAT was lying in a coma “between life and death” yesterday as a row brewed between Israelis and Palestinians over a likely burial site.

A spokesman for the military hospital treating him said in the evening that Mr Arafat’s condition had been stable for the past 24 hours, declaring: “The state of health of President Yasser Arafat has not got worse.”

Palestinian envoy to France Leila Shahid denied Mr Arafat, 75, was braindead and said he was in a reversible coma.

But at home, 14 Palestinian factions met in a show of unity meant to avoid strife in a possible power vacuum.

Mr Arafat has not named a successor and his illness has raised fears of chaos among Palestinians waging a four-year-old uprising against Israel.

Some of Mr Arafat’s powers, such as security and financing, have already been handed to Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, a leading moderate.

Palestinian officials refused to discuss funeral preparations openly, but Mr Arafat has said he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem.

Israel wants Mr Arafat, admired by Palestinians but reviled by many Israelis, to be buried in the Gaza Strip.

“Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. It’s not a city where we want to bury an Arab terrorist, a mass murderer,” Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Channel 10 television.

Mr Arafat, who has spent the past week in France being treated for an unspecified illness, slipped into a coma on Thursday.

“Yasser Arafat in his state of health and at his age is at a critical juncture between life and death,” said Ms Shahid.

“He is not brain-dead,” she said. “He is in a coma. We are not sure what type. But it is a reversible coma.”

The 14 Islamic and secular Palestinian groups which have waged the uprising against Israel put up a united front at a meeting in the Gaza Strip.

“We are people looking for freedom, not fighting tribes,” said senior Islamic Jihad official Mohammed al-Hindi, who emerged from hiding for the meeting. “We have demanded the formation of a unified national leadership.”

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians were glued to radio and television broadcasts. Security has been boosted at Jewish settlements, Israeli television said.

Ordinary Palestinians made clear they wanted a successor even less willing to compromise with Israel.

“Unless a successor is more determined and steadfast on the fundamental Palestinian rights, he will never be trusted by the people,” said 30-year-old Khaled Ammar at a Gaza mosque.

But the European Union, whose leaders were meeting in Brussels, underlined the need to press on with peace moves with or without Mr Arafat.

“Europe will continue to make every possible effort to ensure that the Palestinian state becomes a reality,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a news conference.

US president George W Bush said on Thursday he would continue to “work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel” if Mr Arafat died.

Mr Bush has backed the idea of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal with Israel, but has tried to shut Mr Arafat out.

The death of a Palestinian leader that both Israel and Washington see as an obstacle to peace could alter the dynamics of the Middle East conflict.

Both Washington and Israel accuse Mr Arafat of fomenting violence against Israel, a charge he has denied.

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