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Middle East: Widespread Concern Over State of Yasser Arafat's Health

There was widespread concern over the state of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's health after reports said yesterday that the Palestinian leader's condition had deteriorated. Today, some Palestinian officials insisted that Arafat's condition has stabilized. Meanwhile, there are reports Arafat's wife Suha is expected to visit him from her home in Paris for the first time in years.

Prague, 28 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Senior Palestinian officials are turning up at their leader's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah as uncertainty hangs over the state of Yasser Arafat's health.

Reports say senior officials of Arafat's Al-Fatah party are being ordered to return from abroad.

A team of three Jordanian doctors, headed by Arafat's personal physician Ashraf al-Kurdi, left today for the West Bank to examine Arafat. Kurdi said before leaving that Arafat could be sent abroad for treatment if his condition continues to get worse.

"We will transfer him to the best [medical] center available in the world [if necessary]," Kurdi said. "It all depends on his condition."

The exact nature of Arafat's illness is unclear, but Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat today gave the impression that Arafat was doing better. He said Arafat had performed morning prayers and spoken with aides.

Arafat's chief adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeineh, said the Palestinian leader's condition had stabilized:

"He is conscious and he is well, but he is in need of some rest," Rdeineh said. "His situation, as I said, is stable and we are in need of some days to recover."

Those assuring words conflicted with widespread news reports that Arafat had slipped in and out of consciousness during the night.

The health concerns have heightened fears of possible chaos in the Palestinian territories because Arafat has no obvious successor. Security forces were on high alert as reports on the Palestinian leader's health spread over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Under the Palestinian Authority's constitution, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattuh, would succeed Arafat. But this constitution has yet to be fully ratified.

Arafat has been confined to his West Bank compound at Ramallah by the Israeli army since 2001.

His aides say Arafat would prefer to be treated at the compound than to go to a Palestinian hospital or abroad. Arafat is said to fear the possibility that if he leaves Ramallah, Israel will not allow him to come back.

Ranan Gissin, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel is ready to allow Arafat to get treatment where he wants. He said Arafat's illness is a "humanitarian case" and Israel will provide any assistance needed.

"The prime minister has issued instructions to provide any medical assistance necessary, and that includes teams of doctors that will be arriving -- Tunisian doctors already were there, but there will be a team of doctors from Egypt, from Jordan," Gissin said.

A senior official from Sharon's office said that during a telephone conversation with Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei "specifically asked that Arafat be allowed, if necessary, to fly overseas."

The official said the question about his returning to the West Bank "was not raised."

Israel has repeatedly threatened to expel -- or even kill - the Palestinian leader and suggested that if he left the Palestinian territories he would not be allowed back.

(news agencies)