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Palestinian Envoy Says Arafat 'Between Life and Death'

Yasser Arafat (file photo) 5 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Palestinian envoy to Paris said today that Yasser Arafat is in a "reversible" coma in his hospital near the French capital.

Leila Shahid denied widespread reports that Arafat is "brain dead" and living on life support machines.

She told French radio station RTL that Arafat remains in a reversible coma between "life and death."

Shahid said Arafat's vital organs are functioning and that he opened his eyes and smiled yesterday during a hospital visit by French President Jacques Chirac. She said Arafat fell into a coma after receiving an anesthetic in order to carry out medical tests.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, meanwhile, addressed reporters today in the West Bank.

"[Arafat] is still under treatment from efficient doctors and [has had] enough care from the French people and the French government, and we are waiting for the reports of the doctors about this. But there is nothing new," Qurei said.

After seven days in hospital, it is still unclear what Arafat is suffering from. Early fears Arafat has leukemia have been apparently ruled out.

Nonetheless, Palestinian officials are working on plans for new leadership in the event that Arafat dies.

Arafat never named a successor, and experts say a power vacuum could lead to unrest among the disparate Palestinian factions.

A member of Arafat's Fatah movement, Jamal al-Tirawi, urged unity today, telling the factions not to let their narrow political interests guide them in seeking a leadership role.

"We are telling the Palestinians with a special political agenda, this is not your chance to take over," al-Tirawi said. "Yasser Arafat built Palestinian institutions based on democracy that is not available in many countries. Yasser Arafat built the Palestinian institution, which is the address for all Palestinians. It is the guarantee for the Palestinian future."

Qurei is due to meet today in Gaza with leaders of factions, including the militant group Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The German news agency DPA reported that Hamas is calling for a collective Palestinian leadership that includes itself and the militant group Islamic Jihad.

Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said he does not believe Arafat's death would lead to immediate violence. He spoke to RFE/RL shortly after Arafat was transferred to Paris.

"It will be not be chaos like people are predicting when Arafat leaves. But on the other hand, I am saying that in the long run, there is no obvious replacement for Arafat as a leader who has credibility both inside the [Palestinian Authority] and outside," Shehadi said.

Shehadi said, however, that if Arafat's death seriously damages the Palestinian Authority, that could complicate the Middle East peace process and plans by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza.

It is unclear where Arafat would be buried if he dies -- in Jerusalem, as he wishes, or in Gaza. The question has fueled speculation that news of his death is being delayed until those details can be worked out.

The Israeli leadership has said it will not allow Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem.

But Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said today that Jerusalem would be best for Arafat's final resting place.

"There is going to be an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and whether President Arafat is alive for a year or 10 years, eventually there will be a state in which he can choose in his will where he wants to be buried, in his own country and not outside his own country," Shaath said.

But Danny Rubinstein, an Israeli columnist, said Israel is likely to remain firmly opposed to a Jerusalem burial.

"The problem if he is buried in Jerusalem, [is that] it's a symbolic step. So Israel will not let them bury Arafat in Jerusalem because it might be interpreted as Israeli's recognition that [the Palestinians] have political rights in Jerusalem," Rubinstein said.

(with additional wire reports)