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THE DEATH OF YASSER ARAFAT

Palestinians Unite in Grief, Trepidation

Hundreds flock to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. Many express uncertainty with the loss of a longtime leader who controlled everything.

November 12, 2004|Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Penned inside a half-demolished compound for the last 2 1/2 years of his life, Yasser Arafat in death was suddenly everywhere.

Within hours of the news that Arafat had died Thursday in a hospital near Paris, grieving Palestinians plastered posters of his grizzled face on seemingly every corner of this city -- on the windshields of cars and taxis and cargo trucks, on balconies and walls, around the downtown square. Many people simply clutched an oversized image of Arafat in their hands, as if afraid to let him go.

Sorrow and trepidation hung over the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Palestinians were left to ponder a world without Arafat as their leader for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Over and over, residents referred to Arafat as their father -- the enduring leader of their struggle for a state -- and the absence seemed to leave many of them disoriented and nervous.

"All my life, I've known only Yasser Arafat," said Firas Attrash, a 39-year-old dentist in Ramallah who said his father had died in a Palestinian combat operation against Israel in 1967. "This is a great loss. He's the symbol of the Palestinian struggle."

Attrash was among hundreds of Palestinians who flocked to the gates of Arafat's shell-pocked compound to share their grief. Young men, some wearing checkered head scarves like Arafat's trademark kaffiyeh, sobbed openly. Women in traditional embroidered gowns sang improvised laments and dabbed their eyes. Boys peddled a special-edition newspaper devoted to Arafat.

Around Ramallah and Gaza City, youths burned piles of tires in the street, sending up thick fingers of black smoke. Schools, shops and offices were shuttered in official mourning, and mosques blared Koranic verses for hours.

Sabri abu Rabben, 50, wept as he walked through a Gaza street to work from his home in the Shati camp.

"Even the child still in his mother's womb will feel the loss of Yasser Arafat," he said. "I had always hoped to see Arafat's dream of raising the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem. One day God will give us victory."

In front of the mosque in the Shati camp, militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, wearing black masks and AK-47s slung across their backs, used black spray paint to scrawl their message on a wall: "We swear we will follow your footsteps!"

In Ramallah's Manara Square, masked Al Aqsa militants marched, chanted and fired rifles into the air. They tossed out leaflets announcing they had changed the group's name to Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigade.

Outside Arafat's compound, known as the Muqata, Attrash said he and his wife had brought their daughter and son, ages 8 and 10, to soak in the twin sensations of sadness and history.

"I want my children to remember this day," Attrash said.

Palestinians wrestled with mixed emotions, aware that a new era was upon them. In addition to expressions of gratitude toward Arafat for carrying their cause to the world's stage, there was a sense, too, that his passing might at last bring some of the changes for which they have longed.

Two messages seemed to compete throughout the day: the need to hew to Arafat's unflinching approach toward Israel and the possibility for peace and an independent Palestinian state.

"The president started the path toward liberty and independence. I hope we will continue that path. I think we can get there," said Salim Haj, 27, an accounting student.

But asked whether he thought he would see a Palestinian state in his lifetime, Haj sounded less than hopeful.

"I don't know," he said.

Others wondered aloud whether the new Palestinian leadership could overcome internecine rivalries to manage the wide authority -- and problems -- it had suddenly inherited.

The Palestinian government is beset by corruption that flourished under Arafat, its finances are in such disarray that salaries have gone unpaid, and Palestinian police have trained guns on each other in a breakdown of law and order, especially in Gaza.

"There were huge pressures on President Arafat from the Israelis, so he couldn't do everything he wanted and I don't blame him for the failures," said 17-year-old Yusuf Bilbasi, a high school senior who was hanging posters of Arafat in Gaza City.

"I hope unity will prevail," said Nadir Taha, 24, a government worker from Nablus, in the West Bank. "I hope we have leaders who can shoulder the responsibility."

Some people voiced hope that with power no longer concentrated in one person's hands, government might improve. As head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah, as well as president of the Palestinian government, Arafat ruled his people's affairs almost completely.

"He kept all the strings in his hand," said Mohammed Sbeih, a 51-year-old retired banker. The question now, Sbeih said, was whether the new leaders could manage those disparate strings.

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