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THE DEATH OF YASSER ARAFAT

Refugees See Uncertain Future Through Tears of Mourning

November 12, 2004|Rania Abouzeid | Special to The Times

EIN EL HILWA, Lebanon — Black-clad men carrying assault rifles cried openly as they congregated along the main thoroughfare, while others sat quietly. Many wore the black-and-white kaffiyeh, or headdress, the trademark of Yasser Arafat, who personified the Palestinian struggle for statehood and forced the fate of its refugees onto the world stage.

"To heaven, Mr. President," proclaimed a large black banner draped over the entrance of this refugee camp, in southern Lebanon. Many of the 45,000 residents learned of Arafat's death from the bursts of gunfire and wails of grief that pierced the early morning air Thursday.

"Being a Palestinian is not easy," said Samer Obeid, 25, "and being a refugee is even harder. We are afraid for our conditions and our future."

At least 390,000 Palestinians live as refugees in Lebanon, equivalent to about 10% of the Lebanese population, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The majority are spread among 12 camps.

For decades, their fate has been hotly disputed. Israel has refused to allow any of the refugees to return. Nor are Lebanon or other Arab countries willing to accept them.

"Abu Amr died without forsaking the right of return," Nadim Safadi said, using Arafat's nom de guerre. "We fear that his successor might. Today we are all Yasser Arafat. With time we might feel other things, but right now we are just sad."

"I still can't believe it," said Mohammed Nasr Abu Rabieh, 32, shaking his head. "We anticipated his death but that doesn't make it any easier. We don't know what to do, or who to turn to. Even if we have 100 other leaders, no one can replace Arafat."

Silence permeated the narrow alleyways of the impoverished camp, punctured only by Koranic verses from loudspeakers. Pictures of the late leader were plastered on every conceivable surface, competing for space with black banners and flags. An indefinite period of mourning was declared throughout Ein el Hilwa as schools and stores remained closed.

"Our hearts are closed, not just our stores," said Amira Khalil, 50, a vegetable vendor, as she marched in one of the many impromptu demonstrations that sprang up throughout the day.

"Symbol of Palestine," the mourners yelled. "Yasser," came the response. "Our father -- Yasser. We will continue your struggle, the intifada will continue."

As the Palestinian leader became increasingly isolated by Israel and shunned by the United States, his stature among ordinary Palestinians here increased. But the somber mood did not extend throughout the entire camp, and in some quarters -- notably Hamas strongholds -- it looked like business as usual, infuriating a number of Arafat supporters.

"I have no opinion on Arafat's death," Asif Youssef said in his electronics shop. "It doesn't bother me. No one lives forever, even the Prophet Muhammad died."

"Look at these pigs," said one young Fatah member as he walked past Youssef's store. "We stood with them when Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantisi were killed," he said of the Hamas leaders assassinated by Israel this year.

"Yasser Arafat does not just belong to Fatah, he belongs to every Palestinian," he said.

Arafat spent 12 years in Lebanon after he and many of his followers fled Jordan following a military crackdown in 1970. He became a familiar figure in Lebanon's refugee camps until the Israeli invasion of 1982 forced him and thousands of loyalists into exile in Tunisia.

Many in the camp had personal memories of the late Palestinian leader.

"He spent time with us here in Ein el Hilwa," said 60-year-old Ahmed Mustafa. "He visited our sick and knew our children."

Aida Labidi, 38, proudly carried a photo of herself with Arafat.

"I was 14 when I met him," she said. "He was our father, he was larger than life."

Mohammed Rabih, 14, illustrated the strong bond felt by even those too young to have personal memories of Arafat. With an ammunition belt draped around him and toting a Kalashnikov rifle, the adolescent pledged to continue fighting.

"Yasser Arafat first carried a gun when he was 17," he said. "Today Arafat is gone but I will carry his gun."

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