Arafat's fight over

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ISRAEL sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip today fearing widespread rioting as the death of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was announced.

Mr Arafat died early today in a Paris hospital nearly two weeks after being transferred from the West Bank.

Mass mourning began in the Palestinian territories after news that the 75-year-old who dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years had passed away.

His body will be taken to Cairo for a funeral tomorrow attended by Arab and other leaders. It will then be transported to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he will be buried at his compound.

Israel today sent in troop reinforcements and increased security at Jewish settlements.

"The Israeli defence forces are deploying to allow a dignified funeral ceremony for chairman Arafat," an army statement said. There was hope today that Mr Arafat’s death might open up new opportunities for the peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Mr Arafat’s death could be a "turning point" for the Middle East if the new Palestinian leadership were to "wage a war on terror".

He said Israel would "continue its efforts to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians, without delay".

Prime Minister Tony Blair said peace was the international community’s "highest priority" as he expressed his condolences to Mr Arafat’s family.

Mr Blair said world leaders must continue to "work tirelessly" to achieve the goal of a two-state solution which was the aim of President Arafat.

He said: "I would like to express my condolences to the family of President Arafat and to the Palestinian people.

"President Arafat came to symbolise the Palestinian national movement.

"He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, jointly with Yitzhak Rabin, in recognition of their efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East."

French President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to "a man of courage who for 40 years incarnated the Palestinians’ fight for recognition of their national rights".

The White House simply described Mr Arafat’s death as a "significant moment in Palestinian history", and offered condolences.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Mr Arafat a symbol of national aspiration, and said Israelis and Palestinians had to make even greater efforts to bring about Palestinian self-determination.

Mr Arafat had been in a coma since November 3 and on Tuesday suffered a brain haemorrhage. In his final hours, he had brain damage and kidney and liver failure. It has not been made clear what illness the Palestinian leader was suffering from, though doctors ruled out cancer and poisoning.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who first made the death public, said it was a "black day" in Palestinian history.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation elected former premier Mahmoud Abbas as its chief, virtually ensuring he will succeed Mr Arafat as the next leader of the Palestinians.

The Palestinian parliament speaker was sworn in later as the temporary Palestinian Authority president.

Under law, parliament speaker Rauhi Fattouh, a virtual unknown, will serve as caretaker president until elections are held within 60 days.

Flags were flying at half mast outside Mr Arafat’s compound, where he was kept under virtual house arrest by the Israelis for two and a half years, and people have been wearing chequered headscarves in tribute.

Hundreds of mourners also gathered at Ramallah’s central Manara Square, where portraits of the dead leader were plastered on a statue of a lion.

The Palestinian Authority declared a 40-day mourning period in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.