RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's health apparently worsened yesterday in the French military hospital where he was being treated, amid conflicting reports as to whether he had lapsed into an irreversible coma and was near death.
Palestinian officials tried to convey a sense of business as usual while urgently convening high-level meetings to prepare for a future without him.
Minutes after Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia emerged from the government headquarters here to deny that Arafat was near death, Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced at a summit of the 25 European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium, that Arafat had died.
A spokesman for the Percy military hospital near Paris then issued a statement on Arafat's condition: "The clinical situation since the days following his admission has become more complicated," said Christian Estripeau. "The state of the patient's health requires appropriate treatment that has necessitated his transfer in the afternoon of Nov. 3 to a service adapted to his pathology.
"Mr. Arafat is not dead," the hospital spokesman said.
Later, a spokesman for Juncker said the announcement of Arafat's death was the result of "a misunderstanding."
The confusion extended to Washington, where a reporter asked President Bush at a news conference to comment on Arafat's death, saying: "I know you haven't had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away."
"My first reaction is, God bless his soul," Bush responded, appearing stunned. "My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel."
French doctors have not announced a diagnosis of Arafat's illness despite a week of tests. Before his emergency transfer from his presidential compound in the West Bank, doctors reported that he suffered from flu, then gallstones, then a blood disorder. Physicians said they had ruled out leukemia.
"There is no brain death," Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, told news agencies yesterday, "but his condition is deteriorating."
Arafat's chief of staff, Ramzi Khoury, said the Palestinian leader was alive but that his condition was grave.
"I am standing next to the president's bed. He is in grave condition," Khoury said.
Arafat's general secretary, Tayed Abdel-Rahim, said last night that senior officials were meeting at Qureia's private residence. He urged Palestinians to "stand fast, together and united."
Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, who assumed temporary control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee, are working to solidify their power base and trying to ease what could be a violent transition of power.
Both men plan to meet today in the Gaza Strip with leaders of militant factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as heads of the Palestinian security forces.
Also contending for power are younger members of Arafat's Fatah political faction who are disillusioned by the cronyism and corruption among elder party leaders. The leader of the younger generation, Marwan Barghouti, is in prison in Israel serving a life term for murder but remains one of the more popular figures in the West Bank.
It is a situation ripe for civil unrest.
"The only man who can exercise some control and who can command some respect among Palestinians is Yasser Arafat, and he is not around," said Hisham Ahmed, a political science professor at Birzeit University. "There is not one single Palestinian official who enjoys a modicum of respect on the street. Those who hope to project the impression that there is a new era will soon discover that they are doomed to complete failure."
Last night, Ramallah remained subdued but with an undercurrent of uneasiness. Palestinian newspapers and official radio stations and newspapers carried reports that Arafat had been moved to intensive care, but made no mention of a coma.
Hasan al-Zein, 62, who has run a sweets shop near the city's central Manara Square since 1954, complained about the dearth of information.
"We hope that our president will survive," he said as he opened for the night. "But we don't know what is going on. Even if we take to the streets, how is that going to help?"
"We don't know what is happening," said Muath Hafez, 22, who has an electrician's degree, but no work. "We know that Mr. Arafat is sick, but we do not think that he is in a dangerous situation."
What would happen if he died?
"God forbid, he's our president," Hafez replied.
Who could replace him?
"Nobody knows," he said. "Nobody." A large group of young men stood around him, and all nodded agreement.
One new addition was a team of unarmed Palestinian police in a white van. Dressed in green military fatigues, they were an unusual sight in a city technically occupied by the Israeli army, which allows only traffic officers to patrol in uniform.
"This is normal," said the commander of the unit, Lt. Munir Ali, 22, who maintained that they were there only to ensure order during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "We do not know what is going on there. Some of the news we hear is good; some is not good. We do not understand."
Ali was reluctant to talk about what would happen after Arafat's death.
"We do not think that will happen," he said, smiling. "But everything will remain calm. Any new leader knows what Arafat wants - a state with Jerusalem as its capital."
Israel placed its army on alert, and the director of military intelligence warned a parliamentary committee that Arafat's death would be an "earthquake in Palestinian society."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has conducted private discussions about funeral arrangements for Arafat, including possible burial places and how to handle the expected influx of foreign dignitaries.
Sharon's Cabinet released a statement saying:
"The state of Israel will not get involved in the leadership crisis in the Palestinian Authority. If their will is to renew negotiations according to the road map [a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan], they should elect a leadership whose path will be different to that of Arafat's."
At the Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that "under the surface, the expected struggle for a successor to Arafat has begun."
Yesterday, Shimon Peres of the left-leaning Labor Party, who as Israel's foreign minister shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat in 1994, told Israel Radio that the emerging Palestinian leadership "appears to be more firmly grounded and also has great determination to bring an end to the terrible problem of the Palestinian nation."
"They have to correct their main error, which is the takeover of Palestinian politics by terrorists," Peres said.