Supporters bid emotional farewell to Arafat

Chaotic burial ceremony underscores challenges ahead for new leadership.

This file was originally posted on Friday, 11/12/2004.

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.

The thousands who came to the Muqata - some Palestinian citizens of Israel - took control. The Muqata, which had somehow survived Israeli army actions, simply couldn't withstand the crowd of mourners. As people mingled outside in the early afternoon, youths began scaling the metal gateway. Palestinian police tried to stop them but couldn't. Other youths began pounding on the gateway. Eventually, the doors opened and the crowd poured in.

Many if not most of the crowd wore checkered scarfs, shawls, or headbands similar to the checkered black keffiyeh that was the trademark of Arafat, also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar. Some of the scarfs bore maps of historic Palestine, including cities that are now part of Israel. Several women wore traditional Palestinian embroidery. Children held up black flags.

Young men chanted defiantly, "with spirit and blood we redeem you Abu Ammar," and, "There is no God but God and Abu Ammar is the dear one of God."

In a sense, it was the ideal place to pay last respects. The compound, with its stucco and stone buildings, some damaged by Israeli army fire, conjures Arafat's courage and steadfastness in the eyes of his supporters. "The headquarters of Arafat is the symbol of the struggle," says Hamzeh Abu Ayash. "It is a place of destruction and construction. The starting point of freedom."

The new start for the Palestinians begins tomorrow, which also marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, a time when many Muslims take stock and look ahead. The Palestinians hope to hold elections for a new president in 60 days. But whoever wins, the principal challenge for the new leadership will be to assert itself in areas where Arafat failed.

Leaders like Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei have to pull together their movement's competing factions while also winning the support of the US and the ear of Israel that Arafat lost. But with the militant group Hamas, which Arafat had sought to sideline, now demanding a bigger place at the table, it will be far from easy. Hamas suicide attacks typically draw Israeli reprisals that weaken all Palestinian institutions.

Emphasizing the challenges ahead was the funeral crowd, a cross section of Palestinian society that included cabinet ministers and unemployed youths. Some politicians worried about the future, saying international pressure is needed to make Palestinian elections, which Israel has opposed in the past, possible. Wasil Abu Yusuf, an activist of the Palestine Liberation Front, said elections are essential for the legitimacy of any new leader.

Ahmad Barahan, who is 13, voiced worry about the future: "I am afraid we won't have anyone like Abu Ammar," he says.

But when the two helicopters bringing Arafat were sighted, thoughts of the future were set aside. The crowd began clapping and chanting as if it were a football match. "Yasser, Yasser," they cried. There were cheers as the helicopters approached, and gunshots rang out. When Arafat's coffin was finally removed from the helicopter, people lunged to touch it while security forces tried to hold them back.

Throughout the afternoon there was a steady staccato of gunfire. Slowly the coffin moved forward, but the flag had been stripped from it. One militiaman started shooting even before his gun was pointed skyward, nearly hitting a journalist.

The tumult led to a hasty rearranging of plans. Instead of lying in state in the afternoon, Arafat's coffin was quickly lowered into a marble grave in a corner of the Muqata, gunshots ringing out all the while.

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