Palestinian President Yasser Arafat died yesterday at the French military hospital where he was being treated.
In a brief statement, Percy military hospital spokesman Christian Estripeau said the 75-year-old Arafat had passed away.
"A big heart has stopped beating," Arafat's secretary, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, said in Ramallah, fighting back tears.
He said Arafat has shown boundless love for the Palestinian people, who he wanted to lead to an independent state.
Some hours later, and in accordance with Palestinian law, Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Rawhi Fattouh was sworn in as Arafat's interim successor for 60 days, until new elections are held.
He promised to continue "the road the symbol" had taken and reaffirmed his commitment to the peace process "until a just and lasting peace is achieved."
Arafat's body will now be transported to Cairo for a state funeral service expected today before he is buried in his headquarters compound in Ramallah.
Palestinians said Arafat would be buried in earth brought especially from Jerusalem. Arafat had expressed the wish to be buried in Jerusalem, but the Israeli government emphatically ruled this out.
Arafat was admitted to the Percy Military Training Hospital, southwest of Paris, on Oct. 29 suffering from a mysterious blood disorder.
He slipped into a coma on November 3 and his condition continued to deteriorate. On Tuesday, a Palestinian spokesman said that he had suffered a brain haemorrhage and that doctors were trying to stop the bleeding.
Despite treating and examining Arafat for more than a week, doctors were never able to provide a diagnosis of his ailment.
Palestinian deputy foreign minister Ilan Halevi, told LCI television in France that there had been "no decision to disconnect Arafat's life support system. His death simply came," Halevi said.
He added that he had "no proof that the Israelis poisoned Arafat, as many Palestinians believe."
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants angry over Yasser Arafat's death attacked a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip yesterday in what they said signaled the start of a new round of clashes against Israel.
Israeli soldiers killed one of the gunmen, who launched a multi-pronged attack against the heavily fortified Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip shortly after news of Arafat's death reached the territory, medics said.
The gunmen opened fire at the settlement, detonated a bomb and attempted to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, an army spokeswoman said. She said there had been an exchange of fire with troops and five gunmen had been hit.
Abu Qusai, a spokesman for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in the late Palestinian leader's Fatah faction, said it held Israel responsible for Arafat's death, adding:
"Our groups together with brothers from other factions took to the battlefield with the enemy to make it pay the price ... The next days will witness violent clashes with the Zionists everywhere."