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Gravely ill Arafat leaves West Bank for France
Updated: 2004-10-29 14:12

Battling serious illness, a weakened Yasser Arafat left the West Bank aboard a Jordanian military helicopter Friday, heading to Paris for urgent medical treatment. He left behind the sandbagged headquarters that had been his virtual prison for nearly three years.

Wearing a gray fur hat and an olive-colored jacket, Arafat climbed aboard the helicopter as dozens of bodyguards and supporters chanted, "With our spirit and our blood, we will redeem you, Arafat." Some were crying. The 75-year-old leader looked pale and jaundiced, but tried to smile.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat boards a Jordanian Airforce helicopter as he prepares to leave his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday Oct. 29, 2004. [AP] 
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat boards a Jordanian Airforce helicopter as he prepares to leave his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday Oct. 29, 2004. [AP]
In deference to his deteriorating condition, Israel had lifted its travel ban and promised it would allow him to return. However, Palestinians were beginning to consider how their world would look without Arafat, the symbol of their dreams of statehood and the only leader they have known for nearly four decades.

Photos released Thursday by his aides underscored his transformation from leader to patient, showing him sitting in a wheelchair, holding his doctors' hands and wearing blue pajamas and a dark stocking cap, instead of his trademark military fatigues and checkered headscarf. He had spent most of Thursday sleeping, was too weak to stand and unable to hold down food.

Blood tests revealed Arafat has a low platelet count. Doctors said they needed to run more tests to find the cause, but ruled out leukemia. Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, Arafat's personal physician, said there was no immediate threat to his life. "His condition is good, his spirits are high," Kurdi said.

Palestinians wave at the Jordanian airforce helicopter carrying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as he leaves his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday Oct. 29, 2004, to seek medical treatment in Paris. [Reuters]
Palestinians wave at the Jordanian airforce helicopter carrying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as he leaves his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday Oct. 29, 2004, to seek medical treatment in Paris. [Reuters]
Arafat's low-key departure Friday stood in marked contrast to his triumphant arrival in the Palestinian lands a decade earlier, when tens of thousands of Palestinians cheered as his motorcade drove through the Gaza Strip.

After sunrise Friday, two camouflaged Jordanian military helicopters landed on the rain-slicked parking lot outside Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Overnight, bulldozers had cleared a makeshift landing pad in the courtyard, pushing aside wrecked cars and rubble, reminders of previous Israeli military raids. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and several hundred Arafat loyalists bade him farewell.

The helicopter flew Arafat to the Jordanian capital of Amman, and from there he was to be moved to Paris in a plane sent by French President Jacques Chirac. Arafat hasn't traveled abroad since visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in November 2001.

Palestinians across the Middle East anxiously monitored Arafat's health Thursday, but there was no mass vigil around his compound or any other public displays of support.

"I pray to God to save him because we need him, he is the safety valve for everything here, he is the father of all the Palestinians," said Imad Samara, a 38-year-old teacher from Gaza City.

In a rare show of Palestinian unity, the militant group Hamas said Friday it was setting aside its differences with Arafat and wished him a quick recovery.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, called for the "formation of a united national leadership" and preparations for general elections. In the past, Hamas said it wanted nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority, a product of peace deals with Israel.

Palestinian officials tried to play down Arafat's health problems on Thursday, saying he performed Muslim prayers before dawn and ate a light breakfast of cornflakes and milk.

But the seriousness of his condition was underscored by the rushed arrival of Arafat's 41-year-old wife, Suha, who lives in Paris with their young daughter and has not seen her husband since 2001.

Arafat had been ill for two weeks, with Palestinian officials insisting he was suffering from a persistent flu, and doctors saying he had a large gallstone. Israeli officials speculated Arafat had stomach cancer, but his doctors said tests ruled that out. The Palestinian leader has shown symptoms of Parkinson's disease since the late 1990s.

Arafat's condition sharply deteriorated Wednesday evening when he vomited after eating soup, then collapsed and was unconscious for about 10 minutes, a bodyguard said.

A close associate said Arafat spent most of Thursday sleeping. When he awoke, he was too weak to stand and was put in a wheelchair, the associate said on condition of anonymity. Arafat has been unable to hold down food, and suffers from diarrhea, the associate said. At times, Arafat appeared confused, not recognizing some of his visitors, he added.

Doctors later said he had a low platelet count. That can indicate a variety of problems, including bleeding ulcers, colitis, liver disease, lupus and chicken pox.

His doctors recommended he be moved to Paris, where he can receive better medical care.

Several potential successors to Arafat already were reported jockeying for position, a development that could transform relations with Israel. The Israeli government has refused to deal with Arafat, saying he was fomenting terror and is not a partner for peace.

"Whatever will be, we are seeing Arafat being sidelined. A new situation has been created, that could be for the better, or worse," said Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician and former peace negotiator.

"It can be better, because there is a group around Arafat, veterans of the Palestinian political system, who are pragmatic and believe in the peace process," he said, referring to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former premier Mahmoud Abbas.

The Bush administration, which has also tried to sideline Arafat, said it hopes he gets proper medical care.

"This is not a political matter for us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "This is a matter of seeing that an ill person gets the medical care they need for health."

The Palestinian leader has groomed no successor, and many feared his death would spark chaos and violence throughout Palestinian cities and villages.

"If he dies, it'll be tragic for the Palestinians," shop owner Mahmoud el-Azza, 58, said in Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan. "It'll take 100 years for someone to fill in his place."

In an effort to show that their leadership is not paralyzed, Palestinians were to convene two bodies in Arafat's absence — the Palestinian Cabinet and the executive committee of the PLO, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former minister and close confidant of Arafat.

"We admit that things will not be easy," Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press, "but we will try our best for full coordination ... and we will consult with president Arafat on the important issues."

He has remained in the massive, walled compound since December 2001, when Israel destroyed his helicopters after a surge in Palestinian attacks. The following month, Israel placed tanks outside the compound's gates. He has been confined by Israeli threats, sieges and his own fears of being banished forever.

After three separate sieges in 2002, the compound's walls were torn down along with most of the buildings. Arafat slept and works on the second floor of a three-story, tan, cement building.

Arafat's only respite came after a 34-day Israeli siege in April 2002, launched in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing. Under a U.S.-brokered deal, Arafat was permitted to fly in a Jordanian helicopter for one day to view the aftermath of the fighting.

Until Friday, Arafat had remained holed up in the battered compound, fearing that if he leaves Israel should never allow him to return.

At various times, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted at expelling or even killing Arafat, although he has refrained from taking any action under pressure from the United States.

Sharon, in a telephone conversation Thursday with Qureia, agreed to allow Arafat to be flown abroad for treatment. Israeli officials said they feared a backlash in the Arab world if the country is perceived as contributing to Arafat's death.

In a flurry of meetings, Israeli leaders also talked about what might happen after Arafat's departure or death. Israel has prepared contingency plans for Arafat's death, including how to deal with possible riots and prevent Palestinian attempts to bury him in Jerusalem.

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