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Palestinians Plan Transition To Follow Arafat

Palestinian officials say Yasser Arafat is in the "final phase of his life," in a deep coma in a French military hospital outside of Paris. Back in the West Bank, funeral preparations and plans for a transition of power are well under way.

For much of the day Wednesday, cars and officials came and went through the iron gate of the Muqata, Yasser Arafat's battered Ramallah compound. This is where the Palestinian leader remained under virtual house arrest for nearly three years until he was flown to France for medical treatment almost two weeks ago.

Since then Palestinian officials have been careful to say that Mr. Arafat is alive, even though he's been in a coma for the past week.

Discussions among Palestinian leaders in Ramallah focused on the future, the transition of power and burial arrangements. Palestinian National Council member, Mamdouh Nofal. "There are two main points, the first one is the funeral of Yasser Arafat," he said. "There is an invitation from the Egyptian leadership to make his funeral in Cairo, respecting history and the Palestinian people."

The Egyptian invitation has been accepted and it's expected that upon his death, Mr. Arafat's body will be flown to Cairo for an official and public ceremony before being flown to Ramallah for burial.

Where Mr. Arafat is to be laid to rest has caused a political crisis of sorts. He has long said he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem's Old City, something the Israeli government rejected outright. Israel also said it would not allow him to be buried in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem. On Wednesday, the Israeli government said it would not stand in the way of a burial in Ramallah, as Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz explained.

"I think the Palestinians have the right of where to bury Arafat, as long as it is in the territories under their control," said Mr. Poraz.

Mr. Poraz said Israel would permit what he called a "respectful" funeral and would take care not to upset Palestinian feelings.

Looking to the future, the Palestinian leadership has also agreed on a transition of power, dividing up the duties among senior officials. As mandated by the constitution, the Speaker of parliament, Rauhi Fattouh will take over as temporary president until elections can be held within 60 days time. Other duties will be split by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has served as Mr. Arafat's deputy in the PLO and current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

Work is underway at the Muqata to clear away piles of rubble and cement and to begin preparing the compound as a proper burial place for the man who has led the Palestinians for the past four decades.

The Muqata, which once served as the British provincial headquarters during the Palestine mandate, was later used by Jordan and then Israel as a prison. Many Palestinians are quick to point out however that the Muqata is only to be a temporary resting place for Mr. Arafat. They say one day he will be buried in Jerusalem.