Arafat in Coma

PARIS (Reuters)–Yasser Arafat lies in a coma "between life and death" as a dispute brews between Israelis and Palestinians over a likely burial site. Palestinian envoy to France Leila Shahid denied on Friday the 75-year-old Palestinian president–in a French military hospital–was brain dead and said he was in a reversible coma.

But back home–14 Palestinian factions met in a show of unity meant to avoid strife in a possible power vacuum.

Arafat has not named a successor and his illness has raised fears of chaos among Palestinians waging a 4-year-old uprising against Israel.

Some of Arafat’s powers–for security and financing–have already been handed over to Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie–a leading moderate.

Palestinian officials refused to discuss funeral preparations openly. But Arafat has said he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. Israel wants Arafat–admired by Palestinians but reviled by many Israelis–to be buried in the Gaza Strip.

"Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. It’s not a city where we want to bury an Arab terrorist–a mass murderer," Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Channel 10 television.

Arafat–who has spent the past week in France being treated for an unspecified illness–slipped into a coma on Thursday.

"Today we can say that Yasser Arafat in his state of health and at his age is at a critical juncture between life and death," Shahid–the permanent Palestinian envoy to Paris–told French radio station RTL.

"I assure you that he is not brain dead," she said. "He is in a coma. We are not sure what type. But it is a reversible coma."

The 14 Islamic and secular Palestinian groups–which have waged the uprising against Israel–put up a united front at a meeting in the Gaza Strip.

"We are people looking for freedom–not fighting tribes," said senior Islamic Jihad official Mohammed al-Hindi–who emerged from hiding for the meeting. "We have demanded the formation of a unified national leadership."

In the West Bank and Gaza–Palestinians were glued to radio and television broadcasts. Security has been boosted at Jewish settlemen’s–Israeli television said.

Ordinary Palestinians made clear they wanted a successor even less willing to compromise with Israel.

"Unless a successor is more determined and steadfast on the fundamental Palestinian rights–he will never be trusted by the people," said 30-year-old Khaled Ammar at a Gaza mosque.

But the European Union–whose leaders were meeting in Brussels–underlined the need to press on with peace moves with or without Arafat.

"The people of Palestine…can be sure that Europe will continue to make every possible effort to ensure that the Palestinian state becomes a reality," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a news conference.

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