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No Gaza birth for Arafats' 1st child

Fearing for the health and safety of her child, Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha, has made a decision that is scandalizing Palestinian society: She will give birth to the couple's first-born in Paris rather than in Gaza, where her husband is trying to build a Palestinian state.

"Our child was conceived in Gaza, but the sanitary conditions there are deplorable," Mrs. Arafat told Le Parisien in an interview published this week. "I was afraid to give birth there, not for me, but for the baby. It is the normal reaction of a mother."

She granted the interview as her recently published autobiography, A Child of Palestine, began appearing in Paris bookstores.

The decision is likely to elevate what has always been a controversial marriage to the status of political embarrassment for Arafat, a man who has symbolized the Palestinian national movement for more than three decades.

"I will not deny that if the baby was born in Palestine, it would be better, politically speaking," said Aysem Zein, an activist in Fatah, the PLO's largest faction. "The child of Arafat being born on liberated Palestine land, not in exile," would have been a powerful symbol, said Zein, who lives in Ramallah, Mrs. Arafat's hometown.

"However, Suha is the mother and the decision is hers," Zein said. "One cannot blame her for the decision because health conditions are not very satisfactory in Gaza hospitals and this is the first child of Palestine. Everything must go well" with the birth.

The baby is due in August.

"Hopefully, her decision to have the first child outside the homeland will put pressure on her husband and the sulta (Palestinian Authority) to do something about the health conditions and to think about the majority of Palestinian mothers who give birth in poor sanitary conditions," said Zuhair Dibi, a Fatah activist in Nablus.

Ironically, the PLO-run Voice of Palestine radio reported Thursday that Arafat will open a new "modernized and developed" maternity ward and neonatal intensive care unit at Shifa Hospital in Gaza in the next two days.

Arafat, who for years described himself to interviewers as "married to the revolution," secretly married Suha, a Christian from a wealthy West Bank family, in 1990. Arafat then was 60 years old and she was 29.

The marriage caused an uproar among Arafat's lieutenants, who feared that it would tarnish the grizzled chairman's image among his people. Mrs. Arafat's youth, her religion and her lack of an activist record were all held against her.

Marwan Kanafani, Arafat's spokesman, denied that the decision to have the child born in Paris was a public relations problem for Arafat. "I think that it is something personal," Kanafani said. "The president is very private about his personal life, as are most leaders in the Middle East. Here, it is left to a family to decide where and when to have their baby. It is a private affair."