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Thousands Bid an Emotional Farewell to Arafat

Times Staff Writers

In a final journey as turbulent as his life, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was hurriedly buried Friday afternoon on the grounds of his battered headquarters here after tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners surged through the thin ranks of police, overran the compound and mobbed the helicopter that carried his casket.

It took pallbearers more than an hour to fight their way through a sea of mourners to the burial site that was completed shortly before the arrival of Arafat’s body.

The sense of disorder was heightened by a steady crackling of automatic-weapons fire. Extended bursts came from security forces who sprayed bullets into the air to drive back the crowds and from masked militants along the edges of the scene, who fired shots as an expression of grief. The gunfire drew occasional cheers from the onlookers.

Sirens wailed, and medics could be seen evacuating several injured people on stretchers.

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The scene of pandemonium was not what Palestinian officials had in mind when they planned the burial, aware of the world’s gaze as they sought to project the image of a mature leadership and an orderly political transition.

Even before the arrival of two Egyptian military helicopters carrying Arafat’s body and Palestinian officials, the half-demolished compound and surrounding streets pulsed with emotion as Palestinians, mostly young men, arrived on foot to bid farewell to the man they considered the father of their national movement.

“We are all Arafat,” declared one of the mourners, Ahmed Jadallah, 19, who set out from the West Bank town of Tulkarm shortly after dawn, passing through eight Israeli checkpoints to reach Ramallah, about 30 miles away.

Desperate for a last glimpse, onlookers crammed onto rooftops and balconies, scaled walls and clambered up light poles around the shell-damaged compound where Arafat had spent most of the last 2 1/2 years of his life.

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Many others perched precariously atop the compound’s mountains of mangled cars and clung to the upper branches of ragged pine trees next to the grave.

The chaotic tableau stood in sharp contrast to an earlier farewell ceremony staged in Cairo, a stopover on Arafat’s journey home from France, where he died early Thursday at a military hospital outside Paris of an undisclosed ailment.

The Cairo gathering held by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which was off limits to ordinary mourners, was for the most part a model of careful decorum.

De facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, a sometime adversary of the Palestinian leader, was among those leading the funeral procession. President Bashar Assad, whose father expelled Arafat from Syria, turned up unexpectedly for the commemoration.

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More than a dozen heads of state attended, including King Abdullah II of Jordan and Presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Khaled Meshaal, the reclusive head of the militant group Hamas, also was present, along with dozens of foreign ministers, diplomats and religious figures from around the world.

The United States was represented by Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns.

After brief prayers at a mosque and condolences inside a mourning tent -- attended by the men only, in keeping with Islamic tradition -- Arafat’s coffin was loaded onto a gold-decked carriage. The carriage horses grew restive as the funeral procession waited for at least half an hour in the midday sun for the dignitaries to arrange themselves. The procession then headed along a deserted boulevard to an Egyptian military airfield.

Arafat’s wife, Suha, with their daughter, Zahwa, was weeping as she appeared at the airfield with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian president.

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The coffin was loaded onto the plane, and the Arab world said a silent goodbye to one of its most contentious figures.

Some leaders regretted that the funeral was restricted to dignitaries, giving no room for the public to bid farewell. Egypt has shied away from massive public processions since President Anwar Sadat was gunned down during a military parade in 1981.

Egyptian officials, who prepared for Arafat’s funeral on short notice, went to pains to ensure there could be no large-scale demonstration.

“This is the irony of the Arab world,” said Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Lebanese Druze leader. “Even in death, they are afraid of Arafat.”

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Suha Arafat, who has not lived in the Palestinian territories for four years, did not join the trip to Ramallah. Not only do women mourn privately according to Muslim funeral custom, but she is also a deeply unpopular figure here.

Palestinians unable to attend either ceremony staged processions of their own. In Gaza City, thousands converged on Arafat’s seaside presidential compound for a mock funeral. Masked gunmen marched into the compound, carrying an empty coffin with Arafat’s picture on it. The presidential band, in neat white dress uniforms, played bagpipes while hundreds of men fired guns into the air.

In Lebanon, nearly 10,000 people took to the streets of Beirut for a “funeral in absentia,” complete with a symbolic flag-draped coffin.

In Ramallah, the disorderly grief among the mourners was palpable -- and at times deeply personal.

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“His death has locked all the doors,” said Hafiza Razik, a Palestinian government employee who said she met Arafat a few weeks ago as part of a women’s delegation. “It is as if we are also in the grave.”

It had been two weeks since a Jordanian military helicopter landed on the same paved lot to rush an enfeebled Arafat for medical treatment.

On Friday, the first glimpse of four helicopters -- two Egyptian and two Jordanian -- sent up a deafening roar from the grounds, where a marching band had begun to play and an honor guard stood ready to receive the entourage. In a sign of officials’ hopes for a stately event, a red carpet had been laid for the occasion.

But even before the helicopters’ blades stopped, crowds overwhelmed the beret-wearing Palestinian security forces.

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Throngs held back a Jeep Cherokee that was to transfer the casket to the burial site, and the driver had to use the vehicle to plow through. Aboard the helicopter carrying Arafat, two senior Palestinian officials, Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, waved in vain to the mourners to persuade them to back off.

Security officers eventually managed to place the casket, draped with the Palestinian flag, on top of the vehicle. It made its way through the throng, past the entrance to Arafat’s former offices and living quarters and then to the burial spot, paved in stone and marble and set beneath six pine trees.

The funeral was held on a particularly significant day -- the final Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. Most who waited shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot sun for the casket to arrive had had nothing to eat or drink since dawn, in accordance with the strictures of fasting.

It was exactly the kind of adulatory display that Arafat savored throughout his long public life -- before he found himself sequestered in his compound, a onetime British Mandate police station known as the Muqata. The Palestinian leader had been a virtual prisoner there since the spring of 2002, when the Israeli military took over much of the West Bank.

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Palestinians gave every impression Friday of a people united in grief, but that sense of solidarity will face crucial tests in coming weeks.

Although a caretaker government is in place, rivalries are expected to emerge between longtime Arafat associates who spent years in exile at his side, and a younger generation that was born and raised in the West Bank and Gaza and now is impatient for a share of power.

The outpouring of emotion also temporarily obscures the uncertainty felt by many over what lies ahead. The new Palestinian leadership must find ways to maintain calm, control militant elements, consider whether and how to renew diplomacy with Israel, and connect with its own public.

“Everybody’s crying today. We cry not because we lost Arafat but because we’re thinking about the future,” Wasim Zeer, a 21-year-old engineering student from Birzeit University, said after the burial.

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Zeer, wearing a headband with the checkered pattern of Arafat’s trademark kaffiyeh, stood near the grave, which was now covered with bright wreaths. The young man’s eyes were red from tears.

“We’re afraid of the future because we need a leader, a leader like Yasser Arafat,” he said.

*

Ellingwood reported from Ramallah and Stack from Cairo. Times staff writers Laura King in Jerusalem and Tracy Wilkinson in Gaza City, along with special correspondents Samir Zedan in Ramallah and Rana Abouzeid in Beirut, contributed to this report.

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