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Israelis on high alert as Arafat falls into coma.

Byline: By MIKE ROBERTS

The Israeli army went on high alert yesterday when Yasser Arafat's condition dramatically worsened in a French hospital and the Palestinian leader was said to be in an 'irreversible coma'. Rumours of the state of the ailing 75-year-old's health swirled around the world. Israeli TV reported he was dead. Luxembourg's prime minister also announced the death when he arrived in Brussels for an EU summit. Even newly re-elected President George Bush said 'God bless his soul' when a reporter told him at a White House press conference that Arafat had died.

Then Christian Estripeau, chief doctor at the military hospital outside Paris where the Palestinian leader is being treated, said, 'Mr Arafat is not dead.'

Last night, Arafat's chief of staff, Rams Cheery, said, 'I am standing next to the president's bed - he is in grave condition.'

The Israeli military was placed on high alert when news broke Arafat had lapsed into a coma, security sources said.

The Israeli army has a contingency plan, called New Leaf, to deal with any fallout from Arafat's death, including possible Palestinian riots.

The military has not yet moved forces to anticipated problem areas but commanders were told to be on standby.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Arafat's health is being tracked 'very carefully'.

'Our goal is to prepare for the day after, if and when he dies,' he said.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian officials were holding urgent meetings and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie took over some of Arafat's powers over security and financing.

In the afternoon, French President Jacques Chirac went the hospital and 'saw Yasser Arafat and his wife, to whom he expressed his best wishes,' the president's office said.

Arafat's true condition has remained a mystery, with Palestinians issuing conflicting reports about his health and medical officials mostly keeping mum.

The senior Palestinian official with close access to the French medical team insisted Arafat was comatose - but would not say when he lost consciousness.

The French TV quoted an anonymous French medical source saying Arafat was in an 'irreversible coma' and 'intubated' - a process involving threading a tube down the windpipe to the lungs, often to connect a respirator.

But Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Arafat's life was not in danger, although he conceded that the Palestinian leader's condition was 'critical and serious'.

The mood among Palestinians was gloomy.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, senior Palestinian officials convened an emergency meeting after learning of the deterioration in Arafat's condition, said Sakher Habash, a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Fatah movement.

A prolonged Arafat incapacitation - or death - could have profound impact on the Middle East. There are fears of unrest among Palestinian factions, which Arafat, viewed as a national symbol by even some who opposed him, was largely able to prevent. Furthermore, chaos in the West Bank and Gaza could make any cooperation with Israel even more difficult.

On the other hand, Israel and the United States have in recent years again shunned Arafat as a terrorist, and the emergence of a new leadership could reopen the door to peace talks. Such a scenario could also affect Israel's current plans to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in a unilateral move not coordinated with the Palestinians.

An immediate dilemma would be the burial arrangements in case of death. Arafat has expressed an interest in being buried in Jerusalem - a move Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will not allow.

Undoubtedly conscious of anxiety back home at the thought of a future without Arafat - who has led the Palestinians for 40 years with no obvious successor - Palestinian officials previously have described his condition as improving

Israeli media, citing intelligence officials, said Arafat suffered organ failure and that he had lost consciousness several times.

Top Israeli security officials, including Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Army Chief Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, were discussing the repercussions in the Middle East should Arafat die. Speculation on Arafat's illness in Israel has ranged from a viral infection to stomach cancer. French doctors said initial tests had ruled out leukaemia but gave few other details.

Arafat's brother, Fathi Arafat, has had stomach cancer for four years and is in a Cairo hospital in an advanced stage of the disease.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 5, 2004
Words:719
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