Clamart, France — Yasser Arafat was reportedly fighting for his life Thursday at a French military hospital after losing consciousness, as anxious Palestinian officials transferred some of their 75-year-old leader's powers to Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
Doctors at Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris, where Arafat was airlifted last Friday after more than two years of confinement in the West Bank, quashed a swirl of reports that he had died. But the French doctors would not say much else, and Palestinians issued conflicting reports about Arafat's condition and how close to death he was.
The confusion continued early today when an Israeli Cabinet minister said Arafat was brain dead and being kept on life support. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid was the first senior Israeli official to speak in detail about Arafat's condition. The source of his information was not immediately clear.
"It is clear now that he is brain dead, clinically dead, and they are keeping him alive artificially. They will need to decide when to stop it," Lapid said on Israel TV's Channel Two.
Outside the hospital, some 50 well-wishers held a vigil late into the evening. Some held candles, others portraits of Arafat. A large Palestinian flag hung from the hospital's outer wall.
"It tears your heart up," said Mahmod Nimr, a 36-year-old unemployed Palestinian. "I can't see someone taking his place."
In an emergency meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the PLO executive committee empowered Qureia to deal with urgent administrative and financial matters in Arafat's absence, said committee member Qais Abdel Karim. Qureia also will meet with security chiefs in the Gaza Strip today to ensure that no internal conflict erupts in the volatile area at a time of uncertainty, a Palestinian official said.
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 shunned Arafat as a terrorist and an obstacle to peace, and his replacement by a new leadership could open the door to renewed peace talks.