'They are trying to bury Arafat alive'

The caretaker Palestinian leadership decided to travel to Yasser Arafat’s bedside on Monday, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said, reversing a decision to call off the trip after critical comments by the ailing leader’s wife.

Shaath said he will be travelling with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday.

The trio had been scheduled to travel to Paris on Monday, but postponed the trip after Arafat’s wife, Suha, accused them of trying to depose her husband. The spat pushed a simmering power struggle into the open.

“You have to realise the size of the conspiracy. I tell you, they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive,” she told Al-Jazeera television, using Arafat’s nom de guerre.
It was her first public comments since Arafat was hospitalised.

The caretaker Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has made great efforts to present a public image of unity since Arafat was flown to a French hospital last week for medical treatment. But in recent days, signs of divisions between the West Bank leaders and hard-line critics who live in exile have begun to emerge.

Following Suha’s comments, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Arafat aide, said the trip by the West Bank leaders was called off to protest her comments.

“What came from Mrs Arafat doesn’t represent our people,” he said, accusing her of “wanting to destroy the Palestinian leadership’s decision and to be the lone decision maker”.

Later on Monday, Shaath said the trip was back on track.

“We will be leaving after the meeting of the Cabinet, and we want to hear directly from the doctors about the health of president Arafat,” he said.

Too much power?

With Arafat clinging to life, Suha has been one of a handful of people to see her husband and has tightly controlled information on his condition. Palestinian officials have grumbled that Suha, who has spent the past three years living in France, has gained too much power.

“It’s an absurd situation that Suha is sitting there and deciding when, how and who,” Sufian Abu Zaida, a Palestinian Authority official, told Israel’s Army Radio.

The decision to send the delegation came after Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief who accompanied Arafat to France last week, returned to the West Bank late on Sunday with a message from Arafat’s inner circle.

During Arafat’s absence, the caretaker leadership has presented a show of unity, holding numerous meetings with rival security chiefs and Islamic opposition groups. The rift with Suna was the first public sign of divisions.

Suha has largely stayed out of Palestinian politics, although she has occasionally made public comments that got her into trouble. She has expressed sympathy for militant Palestinian groups. And during a meeting with then United States first lady Hillary Clinton in 1999, she accused Israel of using poison gas against the Palestinians.

Possible successor

One of the events that may have sparked Monday’s confrontation was the arrival of Palestine Liberation Organisation hard-liner Farouk Kaddoumi in Paris earlier this week.

Kaddoumi, who had long remained in the background and refused to leave exile in Tunisia even after Arafat returned to the West Bank a decade ago, has been pushed in recent days by some of Arafat’s old guard as a possible successor, in place of Abbas and Qureia.

Their trip to Paris was widely seen as a response to the challenge.

Israeli officials have praised Qureia’s efforts to ensure calm in the post-Arafat era. Israeli officials don’t see Suha or Kaddoumi as serious contenders for the Palestinian leadership, but were closely watching the situation on Monday.

During his more than three decades as Palestinian leader, Arafat steadfastly refused to appoint a successor, raising questions about the future of the Palestinian leadership.

Egypt mediates

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak said his government is working to bring together rival Palestinian groups to discuss a future leadership structure.

“Most probably, these factions will meet in Egypt to start a dialogue to name a council to run the country’s affairs and the peace process,” Mubarak said. “There are contacts now between Egypt and other countries to achieve this meeting.”

Egypt has often served as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli media have speculated that Arafat’s funeral ceremony might be held in Egypt before his body is laid to rest in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Mubarak said discussing the issue is inappropriate while Arafat is still alive.

The Palestinians refuse to discuss the burial issue while Arafat is alive, although they are expected to insist on a burial in Jerusalem. Israel opposes burial in the city, fearing it will strengthen Palestinian claims to the city.—Sapa-AP

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