Yasser Arafat is in a coma and is "between life and death," though he is not brain dead, his spokeswoman said Friday. Doctors still gave no diagnosis but said the 75-year-old Palestinian leader was in stable condition and "has not gotten worse."
With Arafat fighting for life at the Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris, Palestinians sought to project unity ahead of what is feared will be a divisive succession struggle. Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO met with members of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, along with other factions, in the Gaza Strip on Friday.
Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, denied French and Israeli media reports that Arafat was being kept alive on life support amid conflicting reports over his condition after a sharp decline a day earlier.
"I can assure you that there is no brain death," Shahid told French RTL radio. "He is in a coma. We don't know the type, but it's a reversible coma. ... Today we can say that, given his condition and age, he is at a critical point between life and death."
Later, a hospital spokesman said Arafat remained in stable condition. The Palestinian leader "has not gotten worse," said Christian Estripeau, head of communications for French military health services. He did not elaborate.
Shahid suggested the coma occurred after he was put under anesthesia to have additional medical tests, including an endoscopy, colonoscopy and a biopsy of the spinal cord.
"He may or may not wake up," Shahid said, adding that "all vital organs are functioning."
Endoscopy and colonoscopy, where a camera is threaded down the throat and up the colon to inspect the intestine, involves sedation but not a general anesthetic, which would induce unconsciousness. However, a spinal cord biopsy is often done under general anesthesia.
Experts say it is highly unlikely that Arafat's coma was caused by a reaction to a general anesthetic and that it is far more probable that deterioration in his underlying illness led to the coma.
Arafat has not appointed a successor and it appears that in any transition period, the Palestinians will be led by a collective, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Arafat's No. 2 in the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas.
Much will depend on how well the two men get along, since the division of powers is not clearly defined. As prime minister, Qureia is to deal with day-to-day affairs of governing and he has assumed some of Arafat's financial and security powers. Abbas is to handle diplomacy, Palestinian officials said.
Israel, meanwhile, underlined that it will not allow Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem as he reportedly wishes. Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists," Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Associated Press Television News.
Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat chided Israel after some celebrated reports that Arafat had died.
"I hope the Israeli public will show sensitivities. I've seen some Israelis dancing in the streets, hugging each other yesterday," Erekat told CNN. "I think it's alien... I cannot describe my feelings. It's heartbreaking to see Israelis hugging and kissing in such circumstances."
After Israeli media reported Thursday night that Arafat had died, several dozen Jewish demonstrators gathered in a downtown Jerusalem square to celebrate, singing, dancing, distributing sweets and declaring that one of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was "on his way to hell."
Since Arafat was airlifted Oct. 29 to a French military hospital from the West Bank, his condition has largely remained a mystery.
French physicians on Thursday said only that he had been rushed to intensive care after his condition became "more complex," and that he had been moved to a specialist unit there "adapted to his pathology." They did not say what that pathology was.
In Gaza City, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath denied that Arafat was on life support but voiced concern that there had been no notable improvement.
"He's in a critical condition, he's not improving and that's what is really causing our anxiety," he told Associated Press Television News. "We don't have a proper diagnosis yet. We don't know why this situation is, but it is not deteriorating either."
Doctors have determined Arafat is not suffering from stomach cancer, Shahid said. Earlier this week, a medical statement drafted by the hospital said that initial tests had also ruled out leukemia.
Israel's Lapid said Friday that the Palestinian leader was being kept alive artificially, but the source of his information was not clear.
"We all know that clinically he is dead but we won't interfere with internal Palestinian affairs. They'll announce his death when they find it proper," he told APTN.