Arafat, whose life in many ways embodied the decades-long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians and the aspiration for an independent state, died around 3:30 am Paris time of complications from an unidentified disease.
The Palestinian leader was flown to a French hospital nearly two weeks ago after falling seriously ill with what was said to be an intestinal disorder. He slipped into a coma on Nov. 3 and reportedly suffered a brain hemorrhage and liver and kidney failure on Nov. 9. The doctors treating him in France and Palestinian officials have never disclosed publicly the illness that led to his death.
By early afternoon Thursday, the plane carrying Arafat's body had left Paris, headed to Cairo, Egypt, where biographers say he was born, for a memorial service on Friday, a ceremony most Arab and world leaders are expected to attend. He will then be buried Saturday at his headquarters compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he had been confined by Israeli troops for the past two-and-a half years.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Arafat's Ramallah headquarters would be turned into "a major Palestinian shrine" after Arafat's body is laid to rest there.
Erekat noted that many mourners at Arafat's funeral would be from countries that do not have relations with Israel, and so Cairo was a good alternative "to make sure there's no friction or problems." It was possible that the funeral would be held at Cairo International Airport, he said.
"President Arafat will lie in state in Cairo for some hours, and then he will be flown from Cairo to Ramallah, directly I think in Egyptian choppers, and this will be the temporary burial place, because the day will come when we will have an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, and President Arafat's body will be moved to the al-Aqsa mosque," he said, according to the Washington Post.
Foreign dignitaries would still be allowed to attend any service in Ramallah, he said, but Palestinian officials doubted many would.
Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia will assume Arafat's duties as head of the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestine Liberation Organization will be run by its deputy, former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected chairman within hours of Arafat's death.
Under the rules of the Palestinian Authority, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, will serve as acting president until new elections within the next 60 days. Officials had used the last two weeks of Arafat's failing health to try to ensure a smooth transition from a leader who had not groomed a successor.
Early Thursday, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, the secretary general of the Palestinian presidency, immediately confirmed the leader's passing, as small groups gathered outside his battered compound to mourn his death.
"The Palestinian leadership mourns Yasser Arafat," he said, recalling that Arafat "planted the seeds of hope for his people."
"We mourn with our people, with the Arab nation, with the whole of humanity," he said, the loss of "the tutor, the leader, the son of Palestine, its symbol, the builder of its modern nationalism and the hero of its battle for freedom and independence."
Hundreds of people in Gaza City took to the streets after the announcement of Arafat's death. Hamas, which considers the Palestinian Authority illegitimate, also offered its condolences.