Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's grip on power appeared to be slipping on Sunday after his subordinates assumed control of the major Palestinian organizations at the weekend and some politicians predicted that his domination was at an end.
The Palestinian leader's aides portrayed the transfer of powers as routine, but there was a growing sense that the ailing 75-year-old would be unable to reassert his authority unless doctors in France said they could restore his health.
The leaderships of the major Palestinian organizations met at the weekend to agree a transfer of powers. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia took charge of the National Security Council, which oversees the armed forces.
But the main political levers fell under the control of the former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who broke with Arafat last year after accusing him of undermining negotiations with Israel.
Abbas assumed the chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) executive committee, the organization's highest policymaking body. He also took over interim control of the Fatah movement, which dominates the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas walked out of the Fatah executive last year after he resigned as prime minister, and attended his first meeting for 14 months on Saturday.
But his leadership of Fatah is far from assured if Arafat dies or is incapacitated, because many see Abbas as too moderate and willing to make concessions to Israel.
The changes were intended to dispel any doubt among the PLO's and Fatah's political rivals that they remained in control, and to ease concerns among the Palestinian public.
But for some politicians the transfer marked the end of the Arafat's domination.
"There is no doubt the Arafat era is coming to an end," said Mawi al-Masri, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament. "Even if Arafat returns, things have changed. The glass is cracked."
The deputy speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a member of Fatah, Hassan Khareisha, agreed.
"For years now there was a leader who was more important than the institutions. Now the time has come to consider whether that was the right position," he said.
But others noted that the end of the Arafat era had been declared several times since he was forced to flee the Israeli assault on Beirut in 1982.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have called for the creation of a national unity government of all Palestinian parties, but the PLO rejected this.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sunday that his unilateral plan to pull Jewish settlers and the army out of the Gaza strip and a small part of the West Bank would proceed even in the event of Arafat's death.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded outdoor market in central Tel Aviv yesterday, killing at least four people and wounding 32, medics and police said.
Paramedics treated dazed shop-pers on the ground, as vegetables were strewn on the pavement. Police searched the market, including trash cans, for for additional explosives. Witnesses said the ground shook when the blast went off near a dairy shop.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
David Tzur, a local police commander, said the explosion was set off by a suicide bomber, and that "between four and five" people were killed, including the attacker.