"He had a smile on his lips. He was not sad because he left with the intention of returning," Raymonda Tawill said on Friday, adding the 75-year-old leader's morale was "good".


Arafat was flown out of his West Bank headquarters early on Friday on a Jordanian military helicopter to Amman - where he landed soon after - on his way for treatment in Paris for treatment for a potentially fatal blood disorder, witnesses said. 


In Ram Allah, he had to be carried on to the helicopter, accompanied by his wife Suha and a team of medics and advisers, amid a crush of chanting supporters.

 

Wearing a Russian-style furry hat in place of his trademark
black and white keffiyeh headdress and a military overcoat, Arafat was bundled on to the helicopter by his security guards.


It was the first time that the leader had left the occupied Palestinian territories for nearly three years after effectively being kept under house arrest at his compound known.

 

Upon landing in Amman, he was taken by doctors on a wheelchair from the helicopter. Aides said he was to be brought to Paris aboard a French jet.

 

French response

 

France had agreed to a Palestinian request to let Arafat be treated in a French hospital and was to send a plane to collect him, a French presidential spokeswoman said in Paris.

 

A weak-looking Arafat sharing
jokes with medics on Thursday

She gave no other details and did not say in which hospital he would be treated.

   

"In response to a demand by the Palestinian Authority, France has agreed to receive Yasir Arafat in a hospital in France and is going to send a plane to fetch him," the spokeswoman for French President Jacques Chirac said on Thursday.

 

Earlier, Arafat agreed to be rushed to a French hospital as fears grew for the icon of the struggle for a Palestinian state.

   

Aides said Palestinian, Tunisian, Jordanian and Egyptian physicians had advised that Arafat, had to be taken abroad.

 

"President Arafat has agreed to go to France after doctors advised him to do so," businessman Munib al-Masri, a confidante of the Palestinian leader, said. 

   

A thin and weak-looking Arafat, dressed in pyjamas, smiled and joked with medics in the first few seconds of film footage released on Thursday. Laughing, he clasped the hands of those around him.

 

Turn for worse   

 

His wife Suha hurried to his bedside from Paris for the first time since they were separated by Palestinian-Israeli fighting that erupted after talks foundered in 2000.

 

Wife Suha has arrived from Paris
to be with Arafat in Ram Allah

The former resistance fighter, loved by many of his people and reviled by many Israelis, has had stomach pains since last week.

 

His health took a dramatic turn for the worse on Wednesday and officials said he had been slipping in and out of consciousness, although on Thursday he was able to eat, talk and say prayers.

   

Meanwhile, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would allow Arafat to travel anywhere for medical treatment.

 

Israeli flip-flops

   

Asked whether it would then permit Arafat to return to the West Bank, Gissin said: "If the doctors will say that he needs to come back after he receives treatment, Israel will not impose any restrictions on that."

   

Israel had said it could not guarantee Arafat's return if he left Rama Allah, but Sharon shifted course after speaking by phone with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya late on Wednesday.

   

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom later appeared to cast fresh doubt on the assurance that Arafat could return after treatment, saying: "When we reach that stage, we will have to make the decision."

   

"If the doctors will say that he needs to come back after he receives treatment, Israel will not impose any restrictions on that"

Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli PM Ariel Sharon

Medical sources said Arafat had been suffering frequent relapses and sometimes appeared dazed and did not recognise those around him. Officials denied Israeli reports he has cancer.

   

Arafat has for many years suffered from shaking - symptomatic of Parkinson's disease. Aides, however, have said it was the result of a 1992 plane crash.

 

Succession

 

The Palestinian president, never one to willingly share power, has been widely criticised for failing to lay the path for his succession. 

 

However there were clear signs that former premier Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Ahmad Quraya are ready to step into any potential vacuum. 

 

Abbas is expected to chair a PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) executive committee session in the Arafat's headquarters on Saturday, the first time that a meeting of its governing body has been headed up by anyone but Arafat. Quraya has also been given the power to summon and chair meetings of Arafat's national security council.

 

"There is a serious attempt by Palestinian officials to gather efforts to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and to maintain stability," said Walid al-Umari, Aljazeera's correspondent in the West Bank.

 

In an interview with Aljazeera, Rawhi Fattuh, the chairman of the Palestinian Legislation Council said his organisation will do its best to carry out its duties.

 

"The institutions of [the] Legislative Council, the cabinet and the executive committee of the PLO and others will work as usual in the absence of Arafat. He was absent before and everything went fine as usual. We are not worried," said Fattuh.