RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian officials prepared to fly the ailing Yasser Arafat (search) to Paris for treatment after blood tests found he had a low count of platelets, which help clotting. Associates said Arafat was too weak to stand Thursday, appeared confused at times and spent most of the day sleeping.
The doctors told reporters there could be a variety of causes for the low count, including blood cancer, and more tests were needed to determine the reason.
The 75-year-old Arafat will be taken Friday morning to Amman, Jordan, where he will be flown by plane to Paris, said Munib al-Masri, an Arafat aide. The Palestinian leader has been sick for the past two weeks but took a turn for the worse Wednesday night when he collapsed and briefly lost consciousness.
Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, said there was no immediate threat to Arafat's life. "His condition is good, his spirits are high," Kurdi said.
Arafat's aides released two photos and video said to have been taken Thursday morning showing him sitting in a chair, broadly smiling and holding hands with his doctors. He wore blue pajamas and a dark stocking cap — a rare view of him without his trademark black-and-white checkered headscarf.
But the impending transfer highlights the severity of the health crisis. It would be Arafat's first trip away from his battered, sandbagged headquarters compound in Ramallah since he was confined there by Israel in 2002.
Israel assured the Palestinians on Thursday that if Arafat recovered, he would be able to return to the West Bank, a prominent Israel-Arab lawmaker said. In the past, Israel was unwilling to make such promises.
Palestinian officials have cited flu and gallstones as possible causes for his sickness in recent days. But the comments by a group of doctors rushed in from Jordan, Egypt and Tunis after Wednesday night's collapse indicated that physicians were still not sure what ails Arafat.
Platelets are the blood components that aid in clotting. Low platelets can be caused by many medical problems — including bleeding ulcers, colitis, liver disease and blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma — or by treatment with blood thinners like certain heart medications. Israeli officials have speculated Arafat is suffering from cancer in the digestive tract, but the Palestinians said earlier that blood tests and an endoscopy found no sign of cancer.
Israeli defense officials met Thursday to discuss the possible fallout if Arafat dies. Anxious Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip waited for any scrap of information about his condition, with many fearing his death would plunge their nation into a profound crisis.
"I was awake all the night," said Imad Samara, a 38-year-old teacher from Gaza City. "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."
French President Jacques Chirac's (search) office said France will send a plane to transport Arafat. Thursday night, workers cleared out the courtyard of the Ramallah compound to make room for a helicopter for the trip to Amman. A tractor cleared out piles of demolished cars, which Arafat placed in the courtyard months ago, fearing an Israeli invasion was imminent.
After the collapse Wednesday night, Palestinian officials initially tried to play down the health problems, saying he performed Muslim prayers before dawn Thursday and ate a light breakfast of cornflakes and milk.
But a close Arafat associate said the Palestinian leader spent most of the day sleeping. When he awoke, he was moved into a wheelchair because he was very weak and could not stand up, the associate said. At times, Arafat appeared confused, not recognizing some of his visitors, he added.
Arafat has been unable to hold down food, and also suffers from diarrhea, the associate said on condition of anonymity.
Arafat's wife, Suha, arrived at the Ramallah headquarters Thursday after she was called from Tunis to be with her husband. Suha Arafat (search) lives in Paris with their young daughter, and has not seen her husband since 2001.
Arafat has been confined to the sandbagged, partially demolished compound since May 2002. He has been kept inside both by occasional Israeli military blockades and by threats that he would not be allowed to return if he leaves.
Israel, fearing it will be blamed for any further deterioration in Arafat's condition, said Thursday it is ready to lift its travel ban and allow Arafat to leave.
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, an Arafat confidant, said the promise had come from Dov Weisglass, a senior aide of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).
Sharon, in a telephone conversation with his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qureia (search), agreed to allow Arafat to be flown abroad for treatment if necessary, though they did not discuss the question of his returning, a Sharon aide said.
Arafat's health crisis has highlighted how unprepared the Palestinians are for their leader's death, making a chaotic transition period all but inevitable. Arafat has refused to groom a successor, fearing an impatient protege could turn on him.
Two Palestinian leadership groups, the Central Committee of the ruling Fatah movement and the PLO Executive Committee, planned to meet at Arafat's headquarters later Thursday.
One Palestinian official said Arafat has created a special committee consisting of Qureia, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search), and Salim Zaanoun, head of the Palestinian National Council, to run the PLO and the Palestinian Authority while he is ill.
But when asked if Arafat had set up such a committee, Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said: "Nothing like that."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling in Michigan with President Bush, said U.S. officials were monitoring the situation.
Sharon met Thursday with his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz. Israel has prepared contingency plans if Arafat dies, including how to deal with possible riots and prevent Palestinian attempts to bury Arafat in Jerusalem.
Israel has marked a possible burial site for Arafat in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, in the West Bank, security officials said. The Haaretz daily said Israel has taken the location of the plot into consideration in planning the route of its West Bank separation barrier.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said a Palestinian Authority without Arafat could become a partner for peace. "We always said we would be willing to talk to a Palestinian leadership that would be willing once and for all to bring an end to the bloodshed," Shalom told Israel Radio.