Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat Dead

Controversial figure was 75.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, one of the most controversial and divisive figures in Middle East politics, died in a Paris hospital early Thursday morning of an undisclosed illness, according to media reports.

Arafat, who was 75, fought for an independent state for his people for more than 40 years, alternating between seeking peaceful coexistence and leading two bloody intifadahs ("uprisings") against Israel.

Arafat died of complications from the disease after being in a coma for several days. He was airlifted to Paris from his crumbling headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 29 when he fell ill. After a final dispute in which Israeli officials refused to allow him to be buried in Jerusalem, he will be buried in the old British fortress on the West Bank on Saturday. A memorial service will be held in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, the secretary general of the presidency, said that Arafat "planted the seeds of hope for his people. We mourn with our people, with the Arab nation, with the whole of humanity." Rahim called Arafat 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."

Though many considered Arafat to be a terrorist, others saw him as the unequivocal leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In Gaza City, Palestinians filled the streets upon hearing the announcement and some fired guns into the air and burned tires, according to reports.

On Thursday, Mahmoud Abbas, a former Palestinian prime minister, was unanimously approved by the PLO's executive committee to replace Arafat as PLO chairman, according to The Associated Press. Under Palestinian Authority rules, Rawhi Fattouh, the speaker of the parliament, will be acting president until elections are held within the next 60 days.

President Bush released a statement calling Arafat's death "a significant moment in Palestinian history. We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors."

In 1993, Arafat signed a peace treaty with Israel that called for mutual recognition and a transition to Palestinian self-rule in areas of the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza Strip. Former President Bill Clinton later presided over a historical ceremony in which Arafat cemented the deal by shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.

Arafat shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994 with Rabin for the agreement. Six years later, he rejected a land deal from Israel, leading to a second intifadah that has claimed thousands of lives on both sides, often as a result of suicide bombings inside the borders of Israel.

[This story updated November 11 at 10:23 a.m. ET.]