RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Even in death he was controversial. Within hours of the announcement of his passing Thursday, Yasser Arafat was receiving both tributes and denunciations in the Middle East. But in Amari refugee camp, adjoining Ramallah, he was recalled as a man who was faithful to his people.
After 36 years in which he influenced and at times dominated their lives, Arafat's death was still hard to absorb for Palestinians here, even though his hospitalization and coma took part of the shock away. Thursday was not a day for voicing criticisms or misgivings about his policies.
A heroic collective memory and myth were being constructed through words, posters, and black flags. "Yasser Arafat is all the people and the people don't die," shouted dozens marching in Ramallah.
On Amari's litter-strewn main street, where Arafat's picture was placed alongside existing posters of martyred fighters clutching Kalashnikovs, graffiti showed a rifle rising out of a map of historic Palestine. Black smoke wafted in from burning garbage and the mosque loudspeaker chanted the Koranic chapter of Imran. It speaks of God helping those who strive and of learning from misfortunes.
Then an announcer called for national unity, amid concerns the passing of Arafat will intensify Palestinian infighting. "We hope the people will have harmony between their hearts," he says.
Khamis Ibrash, a middle-aged man with white stubble says, of Arafat's passing, "I feel a great amount of pain. Abu Ammar was 100 percent with the people. Those who come now we don't know about.... He was a good-hearted man, a sincere man, he was faithful to his people and that is why we love him," he says.
Like other Amari residents, Mr. Ibrash, a father of nine, has an anecdote about Arafat. His son Mohammed was a wanted fugitive from the Al Aqsa brigades, militia affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement. Mohammed took shelter in Arafat's headquarters, the muqata, surrounded by the Israeli army. "He spent six months with the president," Ibrash says. "My son told me that the president came by himself and divided an apple between him and three others. It shows how he felt concern. We have lost a great man."
Ibrash adds that after his 15-year-old son, Saber, was killed by Israeli soldiers in 2001, Arafat's office gave him a grant so he could go on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In Israel, there were memories considerably less fond of terrorist attacks and failed peace negotiations. "It is good that he is gone," Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Israel's Y-net news service. "The man murdered thousands of Israelis and Jews and really gave birth to international terror. Al Qaeda is the continuation of what Arafat started. There is no reason to be sad over his death. Public opinion is sophisticated enough to know that he will be remembered in history as the father of international terrorism."
In Amari, Wasfiya Idris, the mother of a female suicide bomber, recalls that Arafat visited their home to pay condolences after the 40-day mourning period was over. "He came to the house and hugged the children and cried with them. He didn't say anything. He came to show his solidarity and compassion," she says.
Wearing a white hijab and sitting on a couch, Ms. Idris says that people identified with Arafat's being confined to his headquarters by Israel after the April 2002 reoccupation of West Bank cities. "Just like us, he was imprisoned and besieged. Despite all the shellings he never gave up and stuck to what he believed in."
As she was speaking, her TV broadcast an interview by the Al Arabiya satellite channel with Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. Not quite succeeding in holding back tears, Ms. Ashrawi says Arafat "is the one who personified the Palestinian people.... He will stay a part of our memory but also be an incentive for the future,"
Ashrawi says she differed with Arafat, but that he was "very human, very warm an we had a genuine friendship based on mutual respect."
Ramzi Jabber, a vegetable merchant, says: "Arafat was always the red line for the Palestinians. He started the revolution and he protected it. I cannot absorb or comprehend the possibility of another person filling in."
"I'm worried about the internal situation," he adds. "I hope we don't have internal rivalry and conflict." Asked if Arafat had made any mistakes, he replies. "It would have been better if we had one unified leadership and there was combating of corruption. He tried to combat corruption, but it reached alarming levels."
Maharan Zoedy, 13, standing against the backdrop of Hamas graffiti, adds: "He was the source of power for the Palestinian people. His being under siege has worked as a catalyst for the resistance. He was the source of courage to carry out bombings, but the suicide bombers did it for the sake of religion, not for the president."