PARIS - Yasser Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize winner revered as the Palestinians' greatest champion by some and reviled as an opportunistic terrorist by others, died in a Paris hospital today.
His passing marked the end of an era in modern Middle East history, and some hoped it could spur new efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
But it also left the Palestinians without a strong leader for the first time since Arafat took charge of the Palestinian national struggle four decades ago, raising concern that the scramble to claim Arafat's mantle could fragment the Palestinian leadership or spark chaos and factional fighting in the streets.
In a hurried effort to project continuity, the PLO elected former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as its new chief, virtually ensuring that he will succeed Arafat as leader of the Palestinians.
The Palestinian legislature also was to swear in Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh as caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority until elections can be held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law.
Arafat's health began deteriorating last month. Palestinian officials initially insisted he had a lingering case of the flu, but they grew increasingly concerned when he did not recover.
He was rushed to France on October 29 for emergency medical treatment, marking the first time in nearly three years he left his compound - where he had been held virtual prisoner by Israel. The image of the ailing leader being evacuated on a Jordanian helicopter convinced many Palestinians he would never return alive.
Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. (0230 GMT) in a French military hospital. Neither his doctors nor Palestinian leaders would say what killed him.
"He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people," said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears as he announced Arafat's death.
A wave of grief quickly swept across the Palestinian people.
Thousands ran into the streets, clutching his photograph, crying and wondering how they would survive without the man who embodied their struggle for a state.
"He is our father," Namia Abu-Safia, 48, said sobbing in the Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. "He is Palestine."
Black smoke from burning tires rose across the Gaza Strip, gunmen fired into the air in grief. Palestinian flags at Arafat's battered compound here were lowered to half staff. Somber music played on the radio, church bells rang out, and Koranic verses were played for hours over mosque loudspeakers.
Fearing the mourning could rapidly turn into rioting, Israel quickly moved to seal of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increased security at Jewish settlements.
Arafat is to be flown from Paris to Cairo today, where a funeral service attended by foreign dignitaries will be held for him Friday morning. His body will then be flown by helicopter to his Ramallah compound for burial later in the day.
The Israeli military said it would restrict access to the burial, allowing only Palestinians with permits to attend, but will allow mourners to hold processions in towns and refugee camps.
Just hours after his death, starkly different visions of Arafat's legacy were clear.
French President Jacques Chirac eulogized him as a "man of courage and conviction who, for 40 years, has incarnated the Palestinians' combat for recognition of their national rights."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has shunned his long-time nemesis as a conniving terrorist and obstructionist, said his death can serve as a "historic turning point in the Middle East" and expressed hope the Palestinians would now work to stop terrorism. In a sign of the enmity the two men shared even in death, Sharon refused to mention Arafat by name.
Insisting that with Arafat at the helm it was impossible to discuss peace with the Palestinians, Sharon pushed forward with his "unilateral disengagement" plan. Under the plan, Israel will evacuate the Gaza Strip next year and continue building a West Bank barrier to separate Israelis from Palestinians.
Israeli officials have said Arafat's death would have no effect on the plan. And, since Arafat steadfastly refused to groom a successor, it was unlikely any Palestinian leader would emerge in the near future with the clout to make a peace deal with Israel.
President George Bush sent his sympathy to the Palestinians.
"We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors," he said in a statement.
As much of his life was filled with controversy, so too was Arafat's death.
The Palestinians had demanded Arafat be buried in Jerusalem on the disputed holy site that once held the biblical Jewish temples and now holds Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine.
Israel refused, fearing a Jerusalem burial would strengthen Palestinians' claims to a city they envision as a capital of a future Palestinian state.
In a compromise, the Palestinians agreed to bury him at his compound - a former British police base in the West Bank city of Ramallah - , the muqata, battered and strewn with rubble from repeated Israeli raids.
But they plan to line his grave with soil taken from the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, said Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah leader, and he is to be interred in a cement box, so he can be moved to Jerusalem for burial when the opportunity presents itself.
A visual constant in his keffiyeh headdress, Arafat kept the Palestinians' cause at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But he fell short of creating a Palestinian state, and, along with other secular Arab leaders of his generation, he saw his influence weakened by the rise of radical Islam in recent years.
Revered by his own people, Arafat was reviled by others. He was accused of secretly fomenting attacks on Israelis while proclaiming brotherhood and claiming to have put terrorism aside. Many Israelis felt the paunchy five ft two inch Palestinian's real goal remained the destruction of the Jewish state.
Arafat became one of the world's most familiar faces after addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in 1974, when he entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a sprig. "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," he said. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
Two decades later, he shook hand at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel's right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
But the accord quickly unraveled amid mutual suspicions and accusations of treaty violations, and a new round of violence that erupted in the fall of 2000 has killed some 4,000 people, three-quarters of them Palestinian.
"The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace," Peres said.
The Israeli and US governments said Arafat deserved much of the blame for the derailing of the peace process. Even many of his own people began whispering against Arafat, expressing disgruntlement over corruption, lawlessness and a bad economy in the Palestinian areas.
A resilient survivor of war with Israel, assassination attempts and even a plane crash, Arafat was born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat Al-Qudwa on August 24, 1929, the fifth of seven children of a Palestinian merchant killed in the 1948 war over Israel's creation. There is disagreement whether he was born in Gaza or in Cairo.
Educated as an engineer in Egypt, Arafat served in the Egyptian army and then started a contracting firm in Kuwait. It was there that he founded the Fatah movement, which became the core of the PLO.
After the Arabs' humbling defeat by Israel in the six-day war of 1967, the PLO thrust itself on the world's front pages by sending its gunmen out to hijack airliners, machine gun airports and seize Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
"As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than refugees standing in line for UN rations, it was not likely to respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles the situation has changed," Arafat explained.
© Copyright 2004 Associated Press