Chaos in Ramallah as Arafat is buried
(c) 2004, The Washington Post
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Tens of thousands of Palestinians packed the streets of this West Bank town Friday in a passionate and chaotic outpouring of emotion for Yasser Arafat, the only leader many Palestinians have ever known.
Then, amid great emotion but little ceremony, he was laid to rest in a marble tomb excavated in a parking lot at the battered headquarters compound that was his home for the last years of his life.
Overwrought crowds began surrounding the complex, known as the Mukata, early in the day, climbing atop cars and shimmying up street lights, waving Palestinian flags, holding aloft pictures of the leader in his trademark checkered head scarf, crying and hugging each other in grief and beating their breasts in mourning.
Thousands of people watched from rooftops and thousands more scaled the nine-foot high white wall surrounding the dilapidated compound, overpowering Palestinian security forces. They streamed across the grounds where, in life, Arafat was once besieged by Israeli security forces.
So great was the crush that Arafat’s burial was rushed and took place ahead of schedule. “I was shocked and saddened because I wanted to give him a burial with honors,” said Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
Palestinian leaders believe the site will become a major shrine.
Arafat died Thursday at a military hospital outside of Paris at age 75.
When the helicopter carrying his body touched down, the crying and screaming mourners surged forward, virtually swallowing the Palestinian security forces.
They partially commandeered Arafat’s flag-draped coffin, firing weapons into the air, climbing atop his casket and effectively transforming the event into a funeral ceremony for the masses, which Arafat himself might have appreciated.
The spontaneous and chaotic demonstration by ordinary Palestinians was in stark contrast to the formal pomp of an earlier military funeral in Egypt Friday, where a parade of Arab leaders and other foreign dignitaries paid tribute to Arafat in a brief religious ceremony at a mosque inside a military compound near Cairo International Airport.
From there – accompanied by Arafat’s wife, Suha, and his tearful 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa – they marched behind Arafat’s casket as it was carried on a horse-drawn gun carriage to the airport.
Stiff-legged Egyptian soldiers in crisply starched uniforms then carried his flag-draped coffin to a waiting Egyptian C-130 military plane that lifted off at about 11:55 a.m. for Arafat’s final trip home.
His coffin was transferred at another Egyptian airfield in the northern Sinai desert to a military helicopter, which touched down at Arafat’s battered West Bank headquarters at 2:18 p.m. to a scene of pandemonium.
Thousands of people rushed forward as Palestinian soldiers and militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fired prolonged bursts into the air from automatic rifles and machine guns in a futile effort to push them back.
The sea of grieving Palestinians jostled with security forces and surrounded two helicopters, preventing the coffin and the dignitaries accompanying it from exiting to the tarmac.
Palestinian leaders stood in partially opened doorways of the crafts, pleading with their people to move back.
After about 20 minutes, jeeps and soldiers finally moved in to remove Arafat’s coffin and rescue the passengers.
The coffin was placed atop a jeep, and after being driven through the compound, Arafat was removed and finally laid to rest in his grave at about 3:10 p.m.
Arafat died early Thursday in a military hospital outside Paris, where he was treated for 12 days for what doctors said were digestive and blood disorders that degenerated into a coma and finally multiple organ failure.
The precise cause of death has not been released.
Political leaders from around the world said they hoped that the death of Arafat, an ex-guerrilla leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize, would help restart long-stalled peace talks with Israel and usher in a new era of Palestinian democracy.
At the same time, many analysts and Palestinians remain worried that a bloody power struggle could break out among rival Palestinian factions as they compete for control of the main political, governmental and security institutions that Arafat single-handedly guided for almost four decades.
The Egyptian ceremony, hosted by President Hosni Mubarak, was attended by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and numerous other senior government officials from more than 60 countries and international organizations.
The Palestinian delegation was headed by former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the international Palestine Liberation Organization, and Rawhi Fattouh, who was sworn in Thursday as interim president of the Palestinian Authority.
The United States, which during the Bush administration called Arafat an obstacle to peace and blamed him for fomenting terrorism, was represented by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and David Pearce, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem.
Arafat wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capitals, but it was prohibited by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Sharon insists that Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital of Israel, which captured the eastern, mostly Arab half of the city in the 1967 Middle East war and has controlled it ever since.
Instead, Palestinians agreed to rest their leader at his headquarters in Ramallah, about six miles north of Jerusalem.
Laborers worked throughout the night to build Arafat’s tomb, which was lined with dirt taken from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. He was buried in a concrete coffin so that his remains could be transferred to Jerusalem in the future.
The burial ceremony in the Mukata was to be small and solemn. But that plan became obsolete when thousands of Palestinians scaled the walls of the compound to be closer to the center of action and to watch the burial of the man considered to be the father of their national movement.
The contrasting Egyptian and West Bank ceremonies underscored Arafat’s role as a world leader on the one hand and a revolutionary icon to his people on the other. Even though the Palestinians do not have a state, he gave them a national identity, made them a political force on par with Arab countries in the region, and transformed himself into a leader whose fame exceeded that of many other Arab heads of state.
He made himself and the Palestinian people a powerful force – and often a thorn in the side – in the neighboring states of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where about 2.5 million Palestinian refugees now live. About 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While he symbolized the Palestinian dream of nationhood, for many people he was one of its main obstacles. He could not or would not tame Palestinian militant groups and disarm them, share power with his associates, implement democratic and security reforms, and most important, quash a deadly Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings against Israel.
This gave Sharon his justification for a prolonged attack on the Palestinian Authority and its institutions, particularly official security forces, Palestinian militant groups along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip neighborhoods and towns that harbor them.
Sharon claimed that Israel had no partner for peace. He declared dead the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords that created the Palestinian Authority as the governing entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And he stopped negotiating with the Palestinians and began pursuing unilateral initiatives instead, such as building a wall and fence complex through and around the West Bank and proposing a plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.
He then declared his intent to strengthen Israeli control over settlements in the West Bank.
Sharon has been backed in his moves by President Bush. Bush declined to allow U.S. officials to meet with Arafat. Earlier this year, he said that in any future peace deal, Israel would not have to withdraw from the West Bank to its pre-1967 borders and that Palestinian refugees who fled from Israel should not have the right to return there.
Arafat, after overseeing the birth and growth of the Palestinian movement, then watched as the chances for an independent state anytime soon diminished.
“If you look at the record over the last 10 years, there was tremendous disappointment in Arafat’s state-building and peace-making,” said Palestinian pollster and political analyst Kahlil Shikaki. “Arafat did not deliver according to the expectations of most of the Palestinian public.
“But today, people will put this aside and remember him for his incredibly important legacy as the father of Palestinian nationalism, who represents the aspirations and symbolizes and embodies the Palestinian desire for independence and statehood.”
Wilson reported from Cairo and Anderson from Jerusalem. Staff writer Fred Barbash contributed from Washington.