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Palestinian leader Arafat dies at 75

State funeral to be held in Cairo

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A look back at the life and political career of Yasser Arafat.

Plans are being made for Yasser Ararfat's funeral in Cairo.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat on how Arafat should be remembered.
Will Yasser Arafat's death mark a turning point in the Middle East peace process?
Yasser Arafat

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, 75, the leader who passionately sought a homeland for his people but was seen by many Israelis as a ruthless terrorist and a roadblock to peace, died early Thursday in Paris.

"The last two days were very painful, very difficult days," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who confirmed Arafat's death Thursday morning. "And now, after these painful days of President Arafat, he is dead."

The speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Rawhi Fattuh, will be sworn in as Palestinian Authority president on an interim basis at noon (5 a.m. ET), according to Palestinian officials.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath said Fattuh's first order of duty will be to "declare free and open public elections within 60 days."

As expected, former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been elected chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization following an anonymous vote by the PLO executive committee, according to Palestinian officials. (Full story)

Arafat had been sick with an unknown illness that had been variously described as the flu, a stomach virus or gallstones.

He flew to Paris October 29 seeking medical treatment and was hospitalized with what Palestinian officials said was a blood disorder.

He had been on a respirator since slipping into a coma November 3.

A hospital spokesman said he died at 3:30 a.m. Thursday (9:30 p.m. Wednesday ET).

Arafat's body will be taken from France to Cairo, where the Egyptian government will host a state funeral for him on Friday, Erakat said.

He will be buried outside the Palestinian Authority headquarters compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel has ordered a general closure of the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces, as the region prepares for the burial. (Full story)

Arafat's family had wanted him buried in Jerusalem, but the Israeli government forbade that.

"Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried, and not Arab terrorists," Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said last week.

Erakat vowed that the grave in Ramallah would be temporary.

"One day, we will have our own independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

Erakat called it "heartbreaking" that Arafat died before achieving his goal of an independent Palestinian state, "and the Israeli occupation of our land has not finished yet." But he said Arafat managed to preserve Palestinian national identity during decades without statehood.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will officially represent the United States at Arafat's funeral, a senior State Department official told CNN.

Other U.S. officials may attend as private citizens, but not as government representatives, the source said.

For five decades, Arafat -- adorned with his trademark checkered kaffiyeh -- was the most prominent face of Palestinian opposition to Israel and the push for a Palestinian state, first as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which carried out attacks against Israeli targets, and later as the leader of the quasi-governmental Palestinian Authority after parts of the West Bank and Gaza were returned to Palestinian control.

His death leaves no clear immediate successor in the often fractious world of Palestinian politics.

During Arafat's illness, Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei has been in charge of the Palestinian Authority, while former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has led the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.

The president holds office for five years and can stand for re-election once.

Arafat was first elected head of the PLO in 1969, and by 1974, Arab leaders recognized the group as "the sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people.

In 1994, Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, for their work on the Oslo accords, seen at the time as a breakthrough toward an independent Palestinian state and a permanent peace with Israel. Yet a decade later, Arafat died without seeing his dream of a Palestinian homeland come true.

At a summit at Camp David, Maryland, in 2000, Arafat decided to turn down a U.S.-brokered deal offering Palestinians control of most of the occupied Palestinian territory. Three months later, intense fighting broke out between Palestinians and the Israeli army.

Expressing his condolences in a statement, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said: "I regret that in 2000 he missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized." (Reaction)

After taking office in 2001, President Bush refused to meet with Arafat and insisted that reform and new leadership within the Palestinian Authority were prerequisites for the creation of an independent state.

In a statement, Bush called Arafat's death "a significant moment in Palestinian history."

"We express our condolences to the Palestinian people," he said. "We hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors."

Israel -- in retaliation for increased terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian targets -- severely restricted Arafat's movements, confining him to his West Bank compound in Ramallah in December 2001.

Continuing violence, along with corruption and economic problems, raised questions at home and abroad about Arafat's ability to lead the Palestinian Authority.

In 2003, under pressure from the United States and members of his own Cabinet, Arafat appointed Abbas to the new position of prime minister, a move designed to decentralize power.

But Abbas resigned less than six months later, saying he didn't have enough support to do the job.

In July, Arafat announced a program designed to unify security forces and tackle corruption after his frustrated second prime minister, Qorei, also tried to resign.

Arafat is survived by his wife, Suha Tawil, whom he married in 1991, and their daughter, Zahwa, who was born in 1995.

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