Yasser Arafat has suffered a mild heart attack but the Palestinian leadership has sought to keep his health problems secret for fear it will "create panic".
The 74-year-old Palestinian president, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, disappeared from public view last week and re-emerged at the weekend looking extremely ill. His face was pale and pinched, he had lost weight and he was almost inaudible. He had trouble standing for more than a few minutes at a time.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat adjusts his head-dress, keffiyeh, during a meeting. Yasser Arafat suffered a mild heart attack last week, but the news was not made public for fear it would "create panic". (AFP/File/Jamal Aruri)
The Palestinian press said he was suffering from flu. But Palestinian officials told the Guardian that Mr Arafat had suffered a heart attack last week. "Although he has had a slight heart attack, the doctors say he will make a full recovery. He is in full control. There is nothing to worry about," said a close aide to Mr Arafat, who did not wish to be named.
Asked why it had not been made public at the time, the official said that it would "have created panic at a critical time when the Israelis are threatening Arafat's life".
At the beginning of last week, the Palestinian president was visited by his personal physician from Jordan, Dr Ashraf al-Kurdi, and a heart specialist, Yousuf al-Qusous, after he abruptly cancelled all appointments and disappeared from view. The doctors said the Palestinian president had been hit by flu but was recovered. "The illness is over, thank God," Dr Kurdi said at the time.
But a few days later, Mr Arafat was again isolated from all but a few close aides. Again, the official explanation was flu. Sources inside the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah say he was too weak to eat for several days. When he reappeared at the weekend, regular visitors to Mr Arafat's compound commented on how ill he looked.
Yesterday, the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, said Mr Arafat was suffering from a stomach ailment which was believed to be an ulcer. He described him as "very frail".
Israeli officials say the Palestinian president's health is not a factor as the government considers whether or not to carry out its threat to exile, or even kill, Mr Arafat. "It would be very convenient if nature were to take its course," said an Israeli foreign ministry official, Jonathan Peled. "But Mr Arafat is a cat with nine lives and we do not believe he has used all of them yet."
If Mr Arafat require medical treatment that is not available in Ramallah, he would be likely to travel to Egypt or Jordan but only if Israel permits him to return to the West Bank. Mr Peled said the government would be happy to see Mr Arafat leave but was unlikely to allow him to return.
The Egyptian press recently reported that Mr Arafat has sought the help of the government in Cairo to ensure that when he dies he is buried next to the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site. Israel would have to give its consent for Mr Arafat's body to be moved from Ramallah to Jerusalem. Israeli officials say that would be unlikely in the present climate.
Mr Arafat was on hand yesterday for the swearing-in of an emergency government led by the new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia. But the new administration is already beset by power struggles over crucial issues such as control of the Palestinian security forces.
Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian political analyst, said Mr Qureia's government was unlikely to ease the conflict with Israel.
"I don't expect this government to deliver very much on the two main issues that confront the Palestinians, political reform and security," he said. "The reform process was destroyed by Arafat when he equated it to disloyalty. The previous government had a much better chance to bring peace because it had the 'road map' [the US-led peace plan] and a ceasefire from Hamas. That is all gone."
"Today, escalation is the dominant theme. Sooner or later the Israelis will expel or kill Arafat, and invade Gaza and reoccupy it. The logic of the Israeli policy is escalation."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003