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Arafat's Health Leaves Palestinians Pondering Future

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat continues to undergo medical tests in Paris as doctors try to diagnose the mysterious illness that recently befell him. Palestinian officials say Mr. Arafat's condition is improving and they expect him to resume his duties.

Yasser Arafat may be out of town, but at the Muqata, his battered headquarters in Ramallah, his presence is still felt. A huge banner hangs on one wall of the compound, showing the long-time Palestinian leader in his usual garb - a brown military uniform and a red and white-checkered kaffiah, the traditional Arab men's head covering.

This is how Palestinians have known their leader for close to four decades, and despite the vehement criticism often lodged against him he remains their symbol of the fight for an independent state.

"My name is Yusuf. He is the president of Palestine and without him we are nothing," said Yusuf.

Yusuf is one of the plain-clothes security men at the Muqata. Such expressions of loyalty are widespread among Palestinians.

Since he fell ill last week Palestinian officials have maintained that they fully expect Mr. Arafat to return home and to his duties. They say Mr. Arafat's condition is improving and that he has spoken by phone with officials in Ramallah.

Some of Mr. Arafat's long-time trusted lieutenants have for now divided up the duties. Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has taken over running the Palestine Liberation Organization, while current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has assumed responsibility for the daily running of the government.

Palestinian legislature member Hanan Ashrawi says it is important that Palestinian institutions function normally during Mr. Arafat's absence.

"We want to make sure that things proceed smoothly, that institutions function, and that despite the fact that the president is indisposed there is a political system functioning," she said.

But, there are signs many Palestinians are beginning to think about a post-Arafat era as Birzeit University engineering professor Hussein Zitawi explains.

"We hope that Mr. Arafat comes back safely, but if, God forbid, he does not, well you know we do not have a vice president so probably the only solution to solve this problem is to have a combination of a few persons whom the president felt like they constitute the power here."

Palestinian sociologist Nader Izzat Sa'id of Birzeit University regularly polls Palestinian public opinion. No surveys have been conducted since Mr. Arafat went to Paris on Saturday, but Professor Sa'id says Palestinians have to think about a post-Arafat era.

He says rule by a group of Mr. Arafat's trusted loyalists is likely for an interim period once the veteran leader leaves the political stage. But, Professor Sa'id says in the long term Palestinians will want elections and those, he predicts, would oust the old guard to which both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Qureia belong.

"Most of what we would call the old guard they would get nothing in the elections. They have no popularity whatsoever. In the latest poll that we have done someone like Mr. Abbas or someone like Qureia would get much less than one percent of the vote when someone like Marwan would get 50 percent of the vote."

Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic leader of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction in the West Bank, has often been cited as a likely successor to the Palestinian leader. The problem is Mr. Barghouti is currently in an Israeli jail serving five consecutive life terms for terrorism.

Mr. Barghouti denies he is a terrorist and says he was only involved in opposing Israeli occupation.

There are also concerns that violence and chaos could erupt if Mr. Arafat is unable to resume his leadership. Professor Sa'id says sporadic violence is possible, but he believes the existing institutions and civil society are strong enough to prevent chaos or a Palestinian civil war.