RAMALLAH, West Bank — An ailing Yasser Arafat too weak to stand, unable to hold down food and spending most of Thursday sleeping agreed to leave his battered West Bank compound in Ramallah for the first time in more than two years and fly to Paris for urgent medical treatment.
The sharp deterioration of Arafat's health is forcing the Palestinian Authority to do something it has largely avoided: consider life after Arafat.
And one Middle Eastern expert in Utah says the future for Palestinians after Arafat's death has more in common with what is playing out in Iraq: factions fighting for control for power and anarchy.
University of Utah associate professor of Middle Eastern history Peter Von Sivers said the situation may also force younger Palestinian leaders to take a page from the book of Iraqi extremists and start taking Westerners hostage to force their hand with the Israeli and U.S. governments.
"The Palestinian Authority is still more or less in control, but it would be very difficult to predict if they can keep control of Hamas," Von Sivers said.
The 75-year-old Arafat's resistance to naming a predecessor in an effort to hoard power will leave behind a people in disarray, experts say.
Israel's stepped-up campaign to assassinate militant Palestinian leaders, combined with Arafat's refusal to name a new leader, bodes dark times ahead, Von Sivers says.
"There are clear signs now of growing anarchy," Von Sivers said. "Israelis have been killing off other leaders, and we are getting down now to those in lower ranks who are younger in age and tend to be much more radical and less known in authority."
The result may be a Palestinian Authority that could collapse under disorder and corruption, leading various Palestinian factions to fight among themselves for power. In this chaos, Von Sivers said, he sees a ripe chance for Westerners to be used as bartering tokens, much as is the case in Iraq.
The timing of Arafat's death before or after the U.S. election could also set the track for U.S. involvement in the region, Von Sivers said.
Recent blood tests revealed Arafat had a low platelet count, though it was unclear what caused the ailment, his doctors said, ruling out leukemia. In deference to his deteriorating condition, Israel lifted its travel ban on Arafat, allowing him to leave his battered headquarters compound in Ramallah for the first time since 2002 and to return if he recovers.
Arafat was to be moved to the Jordanian capital of Amman early Friday, then continue on to Paris, said aide Munnib al-Masri. Jordan sent two helicopters to pick up Arafat, who hasn't traveled abroad since visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in November 2001.
Palestinians across the Middle East anxiously monitored Arafat's health Thursday, but there was no mass vigil around his compound or any other public displays of support.
"I pray to God to save him because we need him; he is the safety valve for everything here; he is the father of all the Palestinians," said Imad Samara, a 38-year-old teacher from Gaza City.
Palestinian officials tried to play down Arafat's health problems earlier Thursday, saying he performed Muslim prayers before dawn and ate a light breakfast of cornflakes and milk.
They released a brief video and two photos showing him sitting in a chair, wearing blue pajamas and a dark stocking cap and smiling broadly as he posed with his doctors Thursday afternoon. In the video, he holds two of his doctors' hands and leans over to kiss one of them.
Dr. Ashraf Kurdi said there was no immediate threat to Arafat's life. "His condition is good, his spirits are high," Kurdi said.
But the seriousness of his condition was underscored by the rushed arrival of Arafat's 41-year-old wife, Suha, who lives in Paris with their young daughter and has not seen her husband since 2001.
A close associate said Arafat spent most of Thursday sleeping. When he awoke, he was too weak to stand and was put in a wheelchair, the associate said on condition of anonymity. Arafat has been unable to hold down food, and also suffers from diarrhea, the associate said. At times, Arafat appeared confused, not recognizing some of his visitors, he added.
Doctors later said he had a low platelet count. That can indicate a variety of problems, including bleeding ulcers, colitis, liver disease, lupus and chicken pox.
His doctors recommended he be moved to Paris, where he can receive better medical care. French President Jacques Chirac's office said France would send a plane to take him there.
Bulldozers entered Arafat's compound Thursday night and began clearing away rubble and cars crushed by Israeli raids there, presumably to make room for a makeshift helipad.
Despite Israel's promise to let Arafat return, his deteriorating condition and his departure from the West Bank are likely to change Palestinian politics dramatically.
Several potential successors were already reported jockeying for position, a development that could transform relations with Israel. The Israeli government has refused to deal with Arafat, saying he was fomenting terror and is not a partner for peace.
"Whatever will be, we are seeing Arafat being sidelined. A new situation has been created, that could be for the better, or worse," said Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician and former peace negotiator.
"It can be better, because there is a group around Arafat, veterans of the Palestinian political system, who are pragmatic and believe in the peace process," he said, referring to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former premier Mahmoud Abbas.
The Bush administration, which has also tried to sideline Arafat, said it hopes he gets proper medical care.
"This is not a political matter for us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "This is a matter of seeing that an ill person gets the medical care they need for health."
Arafat had been ill for two weeks, with Palestinian officials insisting he was suffering from a persistent flu, and doctors saying he had a large gallstone. Israeli officials speculated Arafat had stomach cancer, but his doctors said tests ruled that out. The Palestinian leader has shown symptoms of Parkinson's disease since the late 1990s.
Arafat's condition sharply deteriorated Wednesday evening when he vomited after eating soup, then collapsed and was unconscious for about 10 minutes, a bodyguard said.
The Palestinian leader has groomed no successor, and many feared his death would spark chaos and violence throughout Palestinian cities and villages.
"If he dies, it'll be tragic for the Palestinians," shop owner Mahmoud el-Azza, 58, said in Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan. "It'll take 100 years for someone to fill in his place."
In an effort to show that their leadership is not paralyzed, Palestinians were to convene two bodies in Arafat's absence — the Palestinian Cabinet and the executive committee of the PLO, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former minister and close confidant of Arafat.
"We admit that things will not be easy," Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press, "but we will try our best for full coordination . . . and we will consult with president Arafat on the important issues."
Arafat has been a virtual prisoner in Ramallah for nearly three years, confined by Israeli threats, sieges and his own fears of being banished forever.
He has remained in the massive, walled compound since December 2001, when Israel destroyed his helicopters after a surge in Palestinian attacks. The following month, Israel placed tanks outside the compound's gates.
After three separate sieges in 2002, the compound's walls were torn down along with most of the buildings. Arafat sleeps and works on the second floor of a three-story, tan, cement building.
Arafat's only respite came after a 34-day Israeli siege in April 2002, launched in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing. Under a U.S.-brokered deal, Arafat was permitted to fly in a Jordanian helicopter for one day to view the aftermath of the fighting.
Since then, Arafat has remained holed up in the battered compound, fearing that if he leaves Israel should never allow him to return.
At various times, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted at expelling or even killing Arafat, although he has refrained from taking any action under pressure from the United States.
Sharon, in a telephone conversation Thursday with Qureia, agreed to allow Arafat to be flown abroad for treatment. Israeli officials said they feared a backlash in the Arab world if the country is perceived as contributing to Arafat's death.
In a flurry of meetings, Israeli leaders also talked about what might happen after Arafat's departure or death. Israel has prepared contingency plans for Arafat's death, including how to deal with possible riots and prevent Palestinian attempts to bury him in Jerusalem.
Contributing: Christian Science Monitor