23 October: While both Palestinian and Israeli official sources are playing down Yasser Arafat’s state of health – dismissing its deterioration as a bout of flu – DEBKAfile’s political and Palestinian sources disclose that his medical advisers want him to undergo surgery to remove gall bladder stones without delay. This would mean flying him to a hospital outside the West Bank after three years of being confined to Ramallah
The nearest hospital is in Amman. So far, Israel has not been asked to grant him traveling permission. Prime minister Sharon would not object to him leaving, but is already under American and European diplomatic pressure to make sure he is allowed his return. A delegation of Tunisian physicians arrived in Ramallah Saturday night, October 23. According to our sources this visit has little to do with Arafat’s ailments. Tunisia holds presidential elections Sunday, October 24. The incumbent Zein bin Ali is certain that a show of concern for the Palestinian leader will enhance his electoral prospects. He asked Sharon to allow Tunisian physicians to attend the ailing Palestinian leader and the Israeli prime minister assented.
Earlier this week, on Monday, October 18, a medical team from Egypt and Palestinian doctors from Jerusalem and Nablus gave the 75-year old Palestinian leader a thorough check-up after he complained of severe pains. They decided provisionally that he was suffering from stones on the gall bladder that needed to be surgically removed and an acute intestinal infection, which is the more serious ailment because of its recurrence within a short period despite medication. For a definitive diagnosis, they want him X-rayed under hospital conditions which are lacking in Ramallah.
Even in extreme pain, Arafat keeps his eye on the main chance. He and his close aides have grasped that ill health offers him an opportunity to break out of the siege Israel clamped down on his Ramallah quarters after the failed Karin-A weapons smuggling episode in January 200.
The deterioration in Arafat’s health has caught Sharon unawares. He is currently in full tilt of an assault on government and parliament to hammer home his disengagement plan against massive resistance. The distraction of Arafat’s sudden departure from Ramallah threatens to slow down his plans in the short term. A long term threat cannot be ruled out. Established in an Arab or European country, the Palestinian leader would pose a different sort of peril, one that could undermine Sharon’s disengagement scheme. If and when Arafat recovers, he may decide not to return to Ramallah. He may find he has more freedom of action and broader international support for running the Palestinian political and terror war against Israel from a base in an Arab or European capital, like Paris. Arafat cut loose from his isolation in Ramallah could change the rules and force Israel to review its options afresh. US President George W. Bush could be confronted with uncomfortable dilemmas days before the November 2 election.
For the moment, Arafat has been so weakened by pain and high fever that he has given up the Ramadan fast and cancelled appointments. The official play-down of his condition continues until the various parties concerned fully digest its possible impact.