RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian leadership convened Saturday without Yasser Arafat (search) in the chair for the first time in years, making a show of stability while the ailing leader was being tested for possible leukemia in France.
Arafat's usual chair at the head of the conference table was left empty, while his deputy Mahmoud Abbas (search) convened the top committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas stayed in his seat to Arafat's right in the office in the Ramallah headquarters compound.
Abbas later addressed reporters alongside four other senior officials, in an apparent message that no one was trying to usurp Arafat's position and emerge as a single leader.
"We decided that all Palestinian leadership institutions will continue functioning in the framework of the Palestinian Authority, according to the Palestinian basic law," Abbas said. "This is President Arafat's desire."
Rauhi Fattouh (search), speaker of the Palestinian parliament, said the meeting was intended to send a signal to the people and the world that "there is no vacuum here, and the Palestinian institutions will function as if Arafat was here."
Fattouh said the leadership in Ramallah was continuously briefing the top aides who flew with Arafat to France on Friday. "It is true that many things need Arafat's signature and approval, like financial and security issues, and we will be in touch with him in Paris," he said.
The 75-year-old Arafat's health crisis has raised fears of instability since he never groomed a successor and always ensured the removal of anyone who appeared to be gaining too much power. Arafat had not left the gutted and sandbagged headquarters compound in nearly three years. But he was flown out to France after a two-week sickness took a turn for the worse Wednesday night.
Even in his absence, "Arafat exists among us. He is the base of our political system, and he is among us every single moment," said committee member Ghasan Shaka'a as he entered Arafat's gutted headquarters to attend the meeting.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was to convene the National Security Council, in charge of all the security forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat normally chairs the NSC, but instructed Qureia on Thursday to convene the council as usual in his absence, officials said.
A Palestinian official with Arafat in Paris, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was a strong possibility the 75-year-old leader was suffering from leukemia, and that a team of French physicians specializing in the disorder examined him on Friday.
But Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, said initial test results were encouraging.
"The president is in good health. So far, all the tests have been good and have shown no serious problem," although more testing was required, he said as he entered the PLO meeting.
About 1,000 Palestinian students rallied Saturday at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, many of them carrying Arafat's portrait. "I cant even imagine another Palestinian leader other than Arafat," said Naheb Mustapha, 20, a student of English dressed in a full-length black robe and veil. "I pray that Allah will take care of him," she said.
In Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during an anti-Israel demonstration, Palestinian officials said.
An Israeli army spokesman said troops opened fire after coming under a hail of rocks and firebombs, but could not confirm casualties. It was the third day of an army operation against Palestinian militants in Jenin.
Abbas, the No. 2 in the PLO hierarchy, was seen by some as the most likely to step into Arafat's position, at least for a transition period.
"It's obvious that Abu Mazen is the name which is mentioned everywhere by everybody and I think nobody is challenging this until now," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Cabinet minister and Arafat confident, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre.
Abbas, who has been at Arafat's side since the founding of the Palestinian movement in the 1960s, was appointed the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority last year. He stayed in office only four months before resigning in frustration over Arafat's refusal to give him real authority.