A Jordanian air force helicopter carrying the 75-year-old leader and his entourage lifted off from the courtyard of Arafat's compound for Amman, Jordan. From there, the Palestinian leader, who is suffering from a still-undisclosed illness that led to his collapse Wednesday, was to be flown to Paris.
A frail and tottering Arafat — wearing an olive green jacket and a Russian-style fur cap — waved to chanting onlookers as he climbed aboard the aircraft.
Arafat's wife, Suha, who lives in Paris, arrived at his headquarters here Thursday, and the decision to have him receive medical care in France was announced shortly after. The couple, who have a young daughter, have mainly lived apart since the outbreak of the current Palestinian uprising, or intifada, a little more than four years ago.
Arafat has been suffering from stomach pains, fever and nausea for nearly two weeks, his aides say. On Wednesday night, he briefly lapsed into unconsciousness, according to news accounts and Palestinian officials — a development that triggered the urgent attention of a dozen doctors, and prompted senior aides to gather at the compound. On Thursday, his condition was said to have stabilized, though he remained weak and at times disoriented.
Doctors and news reports said blood tests had revealed that Arafat suffered from a low platelet count, which interferes with blood clotting. That prompted speculation he might be suffering from leukemia. More tests were needed to rule out other potential causes such as a virus or blood poisoning, members of his medical team told reporters at Arafat's headquarters, known as the Muqata.
Arafat has spent more than two years at the compound, in effect under house arrest by the Israeli government. His departure could usher in a prolonged period of political uncertainty for the Palestinians, even if his treatment is successful and he is able to return to the West Bank.
"This is the end of an era," said Israeli TV's leading Arab-affairs commentator, Oded Granot. "Now begins the twilight time, which could be long or short . The Palestinians will have to get used to a new reality, one without Arafat, and this is a radical change."
Arafat has never designated a successor. Three lieutenants, including Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, have been authorized to handle day-to-day affairs as necessary while he is ill, but have not been granted any wider powers.
Israeli officials have been saying little about the Palestinian leader's condition, but have been having intensive talks about the potential repercussions if Arafat were to die or be forced by ill health to give up his duties. Israeli news reports have said the thinking on the part of the Israeli government is that even if Arafat recovers sufficiently to return, his powers have already been significantly eroded and he will no longer wield his previous influence.
Palestinians, too, have held a series of consultations, but are being very careful to avoid speculating about what would happen if Arafat did not recover. Any public mention of the Palestinian leader dying or being incapacitated is taboo.
Although the Palestinian Authority president was reported to have spent much of Thursday sleeping, he sat for photographs and videotapes shot inside his compound. Surrounded by doctors and aides and clad in pale-blue pajamas and a dark stocking cap — one of the rare times in public he has not worn his trademark military fatigues and checkered kaffiyeh headdress — Arafat grinned broadly for the cameras and clasped his doctors' hands, but appeared very pale and shrunken.
The Palestinian leader's personal doctor, Ashraf Kurdi, told reporters that Arafat was in no immediate danger and was in good condition and high spirits.
In a policy reversal, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised that Arafat could return to his compound after medical treatment. Previously, Israel had not physically prevented the Palestinian leader from leaving but threatened to demolish the compound if he did. Arafat's Gaza Strip headquarters was destroyed earlier in the conflict.
Israel characterized the granting of permission for Arafat to travel as a humanitarian gesture. "Israel will not impose any restrictions" on Arafat's return to the West Bank after treatment, said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Sharon.
Although Arafat's readmission to the West Bank has been an issue in the past, the current situation is different, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
"These are not political matters. The gentleman is very ill. We hope he gets the medical care he needs to return to health," Boucher said.
The cause of Arafat's infirmity remains unclear. Those close to him have blamed his fever and nausea on the flu or a bout with gallstones. But medical officials say far more serious ailments might be responsible.