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Peaceful memorial to Arafat rises in chaotic land he ruled

November 09, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — The squat tomb sits in dignified quiet, decked in gleaming white Jerusalem stone on a slope soon to be carpeted green by 25 species of trees and shrubs.

A two-story prayer hall and 98-foot minaret stand guard nearby, completing a memorial complex for the late Yasser Arafat that is tranquil, stately and well-ordered. It is, in other words, pretty much everything his tumultuous reign as Palestinian leader was not.

Three years after Arafat's death, Palestinian officials are ready to unveil a tomb complex on the spot where he was buried Nov. 12, 2004, in a scene of pandemonium a day after his death.

The Yasser Arafat Mausoleum is next to the offices of Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat as Palestinian Authority president. The dedication ceremony Saturday is expected to draw hundreds of Palestinian officials, foreign diplomats, activists and members of the once-dominant Fatah movement that under Arafat was the leading edge of the fight for Palestinian statehood.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, a former housing minister who oversaw construction of the $1.5-million project, said the mausoleum is "an appreciation gesture from the Palestinian people." A planned second phase includes a museum.

"Arafat dominated the scene of Palestinian history for 50 years," said Shtayyeh, who runs the quasi-official Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.

The mausoleum is certain to inspire speeches hailing Arafat as spiritual father of a Palestinian nation-in-waiting. The compound's spare design -- the pale stone is adorned only with Koranic verses in an ornate Arabic script -- is meant to symbolize Arafat's spartan lifestyle and personal sacrifice for the Palestinian cause, Shtayyeh said.

"The human touch of Yasser Arafat is very missed," he said. "The open door of Yasser Arafat is very missed. The charisma is very missed."

Even as Arafat fades into history, his legacy as Palestinian leader remains complicated and relevant. Although he put the quest for Palestinian nationhood firmly into the world's focus, he bears much of the responsibility for the messy condition in which Palestinian society finds itself.

The nation he envisioned is split into rival mini-states: one in the Gaza Strip run by the militant Hamas movement, one in the West Bank governed by Abbas. The breakdown began when Fatah lost to Hamas last year in elections that became a protest vote against Fatah's graft-ridden rule.

Now Arafat's party is splintered and weary, and Palestinians remain disenchanted over the corruption that enriched Arafat's cronies.

Arafat once orchestrated chaos to masterful effect, playing rivals off one another to maintain control. Now that he is no longer around to serve as the glue, his successors have had to struggle to create a semblance of law and order.

That was on vivid display this week when security officers whom Abbas deployed in the West Bank town of Nablus ended up in a gun battle with militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Fatah-linked militia that Arafat once armed.

The disorder following Arafat's death has left Palestinians of two minds about the late leader. His scruffy-bearded visage, topped by the trademark checkered kaffiyeh, remains prominent in public offices. But Palestinians can sound less adoring in private.

"On the one hand, they salute him for his achievements. But on the other, they blame him for not achieving their dream and for the problems he left behind," said Palestinian commentator Hani Masri. "His absence showed how much he was still needed and how much of a vacuum he left behind."

Arafat died in a hospital outside Paris at age 75; the cause remains a mystery. Many Palestinians believe he was poisoned and tend to blame Israel.

Arafat's funeral, on the battle-scarred grounds where he was corralled by Israel during his final years, erupted in a wild free-for-all as thousands of mourners surged over the walls and past security guards.

After the crowds went home, a Muslim cleric returned to the grave to position the body toward Mecca, in accordance with Islamic practice.

How long Arafat remains in his spruced-up grave may come down to politics. Arafat always said he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, which he hoped would one day serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

That hope remains alive. The tomb is built to allow the body to be retrieved easily from the concrete enclosure for reburial, Shtayyeh said. The square minaret overlooking the grave has a window on top through which a laser beam will point south toward the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

Even the pool surrounding the mausoleum on three sides is designed to make the structure appear to float, a sign of its transitory nature, Shtayyeh said.

The place may be built in stone, but not for eternity. "The code word of all this is temporariness," Shtayyeh said.

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ellingwood@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report.

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