Media glare and melodrama mark Arafat's hospital stay

At Yasser Arafat's Paris hospital, confusion reigned as his wife, aides, and others wrangled over his state of health.

Yasser Arafat approached death as he lived much of his life: cloaked in secrecy and ambiguity, despite the glare of world attention focused on his every move.

Melodrama was Mr. Arafat's style. In his younger days he would slip from village to village in the West Bank dressed as a woman to evade detection as he built up his creation, the Palestine Liberation Movement, from nothing.

Forty years later, trapped by Israeli troops in the ruins of his headquarters in Ramallah for more than three years, he flamboyantly defied Israeli and American efforts to make him irrelevant.

In between, he escaped political or military disaster by a hair's breadth countless times to fight another day.

But the melodrama descended into embarrassment at the military hospital in a Paris suburb where Arafat was, at press time Tuesday, reported to be in a coma. His wife and top political aides quarreled angrily and publicly over the Palestinian leader's unconscious body.

The semblance of dignity he had managed to retain as he was flown in his pajamas and a blue wool hat from Ramallah to Paris was stripped away by the vicious infighting that his plight provoked among those closest to him.

After a week of conflicting reports about the true state of his health had trickled through the hospital's iron gates, the four senior-most figures in the Palestinian Authority after the president himself were left with no alternative but to come to Paris in person to find out for themselves what exactly was going on.

The sight of those four men being driven into the hospital in a fleet of dark- blue government limousines on Tuesday, flanked by motorcycle police outriders, and being driven out again just over two hours later, counted as an event for the hundreds of TV and radio journalists crowded behind a 200-yard-long barrier outside the hospital.

Camped there for a week, they had long ago tired of filming the Palestinian flags draped on the hospital wall, or interviewing some unexpected well-wishers holding a vigil - a group of black-coated Hassidic Jewish rabbis who believe the state of Israel is a sacrilege (since, in their view, the Messiah has not yet arrived), and that Palestinians should take over all its land.

And they were being short-circuited anyway: While they fed on the occasional terse and obscurely worded statement from a French general standing on the sidewalk, Suha Arafat was calling Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV station in Qatar, directly from her husband's bedside to warn excitedly of a "plot" by the Palestinian leader's deputies to "bury" her husband "alive."

Palestinians have known for a long time that there is no love lost between Suha, a dyed-blonde with a pronounced taste for luxury who has lived mostly in Paris in recent years, and Arafat's political companions who have been by his side for nearly half a century - men like Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, or PLO No. 2 Mahmoud Abbas.

They have always shouldered her out of the political fray, and Mrs. Arafat's outburst on Al Jazeera appeared motivated by her fears that when her husband has gone she will be left unprotected against her enemies.

She must be wondering, for example, what a French judge has found out about the $11.4 million transferred into her French bank account between 2002 and 2003 - allegedly illegal payments being investigated on suspicion of money laundering.

The fate of hundreds of millions of dollars thought to be in Arafat's bank accounts seemed to drive the confusion over his status as much as doubts about where and how he would be buried.

The Palestinian leader's penchant for holding all the strings may have served him well in life, but it betrayed him near his deathbed. True to form, however, he has kept the world guessing about his next step right until the end.

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