Arafat's health is said to be improving, reports Layla Hafez from Paris
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Following three days of treatment at Percy Military Hospital in Clamart, 40km southwest of Paris, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's health has been reported "improved". Doctors have ruled out cancer but they cannot yet diagnose the president's condition and have to carry out further testing. According to the Palestinian ambassador in Paris, Layla Shahid, Arafat is eating and talking to his aides.
Mohamed Dahlan, former chief of Palestinian security, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he will remain in France, with Arafat, until the president's health improves. Concerning the possibility of a power vacuum developing in the Palestinian territories, Dahlan said that there is complete unity and solidarity at home. He stated that differences among rival parties have subsided and that the administration of daily life is continuing as normal. "This is not an easy time for the Palestinian people, but life will go on," he added.
At one point, CNN reported that Arafat had been diagnosed with leukaemia. This report was officially denied and since then Arafat's aides have decided to give no statements to the press apart from the daily briefing Layla Shahid offers at the hospital.
Reacting to Ariel Sharon's remarks on possible negotiations with a new Palestinian administration, Arafat's assistant, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said that the "address of the Palestinian government is Yasser Arafat".
Sharon's dream that Arafat would leave the Palestinian territories may have finally come true, but not in the manner Sharon wanted. Since he arrived in France for treatment, Arafat has become a focus of attention from the same international media that could not have access to him in his Ramallah siege.
Major television station vans are now parked in a row in front of the gates of the French military hospital. All bear satellite antennas, ready to report second by second any development in Arafat's state of health. The hospital's courtyard has turned into a gathering point for journalists, the Palestinian community in France and pro-Palestinian groups. Throngs are seen in the courtyard daily, waving Palestinian flags and chanting Arafat's name, filmed by the media and guarded by dozens of French police.
Arafat's health had deteriorated to the point at which he needed medical care outside of Ramallah -- his condition attributed to a blood disorder. The Israeli government promised to allow Arafat back in the territories after treatment, a promise that Sharon refused to give in the past. This time, Sharon could not risk the potential wrath of the Palestinian public nor the certain criticism of the international media and governments should Arafat die for lack of available treatment.
France agreed to receive Arafat on purely humanitarian grounds, according to the French Foreign Ministry. Though it is unlikely that Arafat would have wanted to be in a better place. France is the only Western country with which Arafat has had close ties for the past 25 years. The Palestinian leader, during a visit to France in 1997, underlined this closeness by saying that every time he has a problem he goes to "doctor Chirac".
The honeymoon between Arafat and France goes back to 1974, when France, under President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing recognised the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and established formal relations. In 1989, Arafat visited France for the first time and met President François Mitterrand who, as secretary-general of the Socialist Party, was a close friend of Israel. During that visit, Arafat was received with all the pomp reserved for heads of state. His visit was described as "historic", for it was during that visit that Arafat said that the PLO chapter was "outdated", effectively recognising the existence of Israel. The statement was a gift to President Mitterrand who, back in 1982, had told the Israeli Knesset that the PLO "speaks on behalf of fighters", a statement that contradicted Israel's claim that the PLO was a terrorist group.
Close relations between Arafat and France continued under Jacques Chirac who recognised Arafat as the legitimate president upon the latter's election in 1996. Chirac did not change his position even after the United States under President Bush isolated Arafat. Israel, for its part, has for some time ignored Arafat and refused to negotiate with him. Sharon has banned world leaders meeting with Arafat in Ramallah and threatened to boycott any politician who meets with the Palestinian president.
Other countries have towed the Israeli line, while France remained the only Western country whose foreign minister meets with Arafat. The last such meeting was on 30 June, when Michel Barnier met Arafat in Ramallah in his first ever tour of the region as French foreign minister. Nor can the Palestinians forget Chirac's response to Bush during the G8 summit in Canada in June 2003. Bush called for Arafat to be excluded from negotiations with Israel. In response, Chirac said, "we cannot ask the Palestinians to hold elections and at the same time tell them who to elect."