Supporters bid emotional farewell to Arafat
Chaotic burial ceremony underscores challenges ahead for new leadership.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK AND CAIRO
This file was originally posted on Friday, 11/12/2004.Skip to next paragraph
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Palestinians closed a chapter of their history by burying Yasser Arafat, their founding father and leader for three and a half decades, amid gunfire and chaos.
It was a day of charged emotions for the Palestinian public, including militiamen, as they parted with a leader loved by many for his total devotion to their cause, a controversial man who used terrorism and diplomacy to put Palestinian statehood on the international agenda but was unable to put an independent state on the map.
"Yasser Arafat was a leader for all of the Palestinian people everywhere," says Nuri al-Okbi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was on hand to bid farewell to Arafat. "He made the whole world know the Palestinian problem. [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir said there is no such thing as the Palestinian people. Because of Arafat, even Sharon now says there should be a Palestinian state."
For Friday's funeral, the Palestinian Authority intended to keep the public outside of the Muqata, Mr. Arafat's battered headquarters, while a ceremony took place in one of its halls for diplomats, officials, and clergy.
But the PA, which under Arafat lost control of the street to militiamen and factions in areas of the West Bank, lost control of his funeral, too. A crowd of thousands poured into the Muqata, with the behavior of some increasing concern that Arafat's passing could lead to intensified chaos and violence. Amid consistent gunfire and overwrought emotions, Arafat was laid to rest early to avoid potential unrest.
Arafat's final journey began in a more orderly fashion, with a tightly guarded military funeral in Cairo, the city of his birth and the source of his noticeable Egyptian accent. The morning ceremony was hastily scheduled, since many of the Arab leaders in attendance refuse to go to the occupied territories and because security would have been harder to assure there.
There were no chances of security problems in Cairo. Thousands of officers sealed the roads leading into the Galaa Club, the military social club where services were held in a makeshift tent and a small mosque.
While ordinary Egyptians were kept far away from the proceedings, the popularity of the Palestinian cause within the Arab world was brought home by the presence of at least 20 foreign leaders, the largest number of foreign heads of state in Cairo since the funeral of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President assassinated in 1981 after having made peace with Israel.
Even Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose father Hafez tried to assassinate Arafat in the 1980s and denounced him as a traitor to the Arab world in the 1990s for signing an agreement with Israel, flew in for the ceremony.
After a brief ceremony, Arafat's coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, was carried on a horse-drawn carriage through the sealed streets to a nearby airbase, as most of the dignitaries walked slowly behind. A military band played the Palestinian national anthem while Arafat's wife, Suha, and his 9-year old daughter wept. From there he was flown to Ramallah, where his body was supposed to lie in state for two hours and then be buried by sundown in accordance with Islamic custom.
But things quickly unraveled, with a crowd surging around the helicopter that carried Arafat's coffin along with new PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas and Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian head of intelligence, who is also the country's principal liaison with the Palestinians. It took about 20 minutes for the men to alight and the coffin to be removed.