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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Palestinan Visitors headed for Showdown with Arafat's wife

Former Palestinan PM Mahmoud Abbas arrives at his Paris hotel late Monday  (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Former Palestinan PM Mahmoud Abbas arrives at his Paris hotel late Monday (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Visitors headed for showdown with Arafat's wife         Suha Arafat News Staff

Amidst the ongoing confusion over Yasser Arafat's health, there is an unlikely showdown brewing in Paris -- between top members of the caretaker Palestinian administration and their ailing leader's wife.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former PM Mahmoud Abbas touched down at Paris' Le Bourget airport on Monday evening, with a plan to visit Arafat on what many believe is his deathbed.

Their arrival comes a day after they called off the trip -- when Arafat's wife Suha accused them of embarking on a mission to grab power from the ailing leader.

On Sunday, Suha Arafat told Al-Jazeera TV that their trip's sole purpose was to "bury her husband al ve.''

"Let it be known to the honest Palestinian people that a bunch of those who to take over are coming to Paris tomorrow,'' Suha said in an emotionally-charged live telephone interview from Arafat's bedside.

"You have to realize the size of the conspiracy. I tell you they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive,'' she said in Arabic, using his nom de guerre. "He is all right and he is going home. God is great.''

Her remarks so shocked Palestinians, the caretaker leadership called off its planned trip to Paris. But as the dust settled, the harsh rebuke -- from a woman who, until a week ago, had not seen her husband in years -- served to unify the Palestinian response.

  • Backgrounders:
    Arafat's wife emerges as major figure
    Size, location of Arafat assets a mystery
    • Palestinian reaction

      In an urgent news conference convened in the West Bank on Monday, senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim made it clear Suha Arafat's involvement is not being warmly received.

      "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.''

      Palestinian Cabinet minister Salah Taamri later said, "We are Yasser Arafat's family. We knew Yasser Arafat even before Mrs. Suha Arafat was born. We care for Yasser Arafat and no one has the right to deny the truth from the Palestinian people."

      And, adding his comments to the fray, Qureia told reporters he regretted the outburst.

      "We express our utmost regret at the comments made by sister Suha," he said. "Abu Ammar belongs to the Palestinian people."

      Suha Arafat, a Sorbonne-educated, Christian convert to Islam, married Arafat in a secret ceremony 14 years ago. Since the latest uprising began in 2000, Suha, 41, has lived in Paris with the couple's daughter, Zahwa, where she is said to receive a monthly stipend of more than $100,000 CDN from PLO coffers.

      The perception she abandoned the West Bank for the luxuries of Paris life, coupled with the fact she had not seen her husband in years and now enjoys virtually exclusive access to him, has left a bitter taste in many Palestinians' mouths.

      Thousands staged rallies in Ramallah and other cities on Monday to make that clear.

      Some accuse her of aligning with hardliners vying to succeed Arafat, while others suggest she is a spoiled socialite with an exclusive interest in Arafat's alleged fortune.

      There is speculation Suha Arafat has spirited away millions in PLO funds has been fuelled by a French money laundering probe of approximately $13.6 million CDN transferred into her Parisian bank accounts between July 2002, and September 2003.

      Whatever the facts, Suha Arafat's outburst only managed to temporarily stall the visit, as the trip was declared a go on Monday morning.

      "The leadership should be around President Arafat in his office and his hospital bed. This is the natural thing to do," Arafat spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdeneh told reporters.

      "What they are trying to do is come up with a clear picture of what the health of Yasser Arafat truly is," CTV's Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Ramallah in the West Bank.

      Arafat's condition

      Verifying the exact state of Arafat's health has been increasingly difficult in recent days.

      The 75-year-old Palestinian leader is said to be in stable condition, suffering an unrevealed illness, in the intensive care unit at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart, France. From a stream of conflicting reports, Arafat has been alternately described as conscious, unconscious, improving and comatose.

      Israeli media have even reported that Arafat may be taken off life-support equipment after the four leaders visit him.

      Attempting to cut through the confusion, doctors at the hospital where Arafat is being treated issued their own update on Monday.

      "His condition is stable," hospital spokesperson Gen. Christian Estripeau told reporters.

      However, "the medical situation of President Arafat compels us to restrict visitors."

      The already profound confusion over Arafat's health is being exacerbated by the struggle to gain access to the sick leader.

      So far, that has meant limiting Arafat's visitors to his wife and a handful of other Palestinian aides in Paris.

      Under French law, Suha Arafat has legal authority over her husband -- including the final decision on cutting off life-support. Until now, she has exercised that authority by attempting to control the flow of information regarding her husband's health.

      With the arrival of Qureia and his colleagues, the stage is now set for another tense showdown.

      With files from CTV's Tom Kennedy and The Associated Press

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