Arafat passes away in French hospital

The Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has died at a French military hospital in the early hours of this morning.

The 75-year-old Palestinian leader is understood to have died from a brain haemorrhage after slipping into a coma on November 3. A 40-day period of mourning will be observed during which time interim leaders will be appointed and elections organised.

Arafat's health deteriorated sharply last month and he was forced to leave his Ramallah compound on October 29 to seek treatment in a French hospital for a "low blood platelet count" – a disease that is most commonly associated with leukaemia and blood poisoning.

However, the exact nature of his illness – and his physical condition in the final days – were only dealt with in the most ambiguous terms by Palestinian officials. At one stage, Mr Arafat was said to be in a "reversible coma".

The militant group Hamas added to the confusion when it claimed that Arafat had been poisoned by Israeli agents - an allegation immediately rejected by Palestinian officials.

It is thought that Arafat's body will be flown to Cairo, where he was born, for a funeral ceremony where international and Arab leaders will come to pay their respects. The body will then be flown on to Ramallah.

Palestinian officials want to bury Arafat - in accordance with his wishes – at Temple Mount in occupied east Jerusalem, however, the Israeli government has voiced its opposition to this.

Throughout his 40 years of militant and political struggle against the state of Israel, Arafat became the iconic figurehead of the Palestinian cause, articulating the Palestinian position on the world stage. He achieved his powerful presence internationally not only through a mix of charisma and tireless diplomacy, but through his singular dominance of Palestinian politics and militancy at home.

At the time of his death, Arafat was chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, president of the Palestinian Authority and chief of the Fatah movement.

Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister who resigned reputedly as a result of Arafat's unwillingness to transfer power, has been named as PLO chief. Abbas' investiture will mean that he will run unopposed for the position of president when elections are called. In the meantime, Palestinian parliamentary speaker Rauhi Fattouh has been named as interim president.

Observers have noted that Arafat may have created conditions more conducive to the pursuance of an independent Palestine through his death than he could ever have achieved in life.

The Middle East peace process went into cold storage two years ago after Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon blockaded an "irrelevant" Arafat inside his Ramallah compound. The Bush administration openly talked of Arafat's dominance of the Palestinian political structure as a hindrance to negotiations.

Following Arafat's passing last night, both the Israeli and US governments have issued optimistic statements that talks on the two-state solution can be restarted.

Elsewhere, the Foreign Office has today revised its travel advice for Israel and the Occupied Territories in the wake of Mr Arafat's death.

The Foreign Office has said death of Yasser Arafat presented the "potential for deterioration in the security situation" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Staff from the British Embassy Tel Aviv and Consulate-General Jerusalem have now been advised not to enter either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip until further notice.

The Israeli government, anticipating disturbances in the region, has increased its security presence along the West bank and Gaza Strip.


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