Palls of thick black smoke and an image of their leader's face pasted on almost any flat space rallied Palestinians Thursday morning to the reality that Yasser Arafat
, their leader of 40 years, had indeed died.
Arafat had survived a plane crash, various assassination attempts, illness and worse yet: according to his longtime supporters, the apathy of his people as organ after organ failed him.
As he teetered between life and death over the past two weeks, his people waited in expectation, as if they had been through this before, seemingly resigned to the national earthquake beneath them.
Shopping and mild revelry among Ramallah
residents in preparation for the feast of Id al-Fitr
had marked the first two weeks of Arafat's death throes.
By Thursday night marchers, who in the morning had numbered in the dozens, swelled to the thousands. Men openly wept in the streets. Masked gunmen, who have now become the sine qua non of all "quality" demonstrations, marched from Ramallah's central al-Manar Square to Arafat's beseiged Mukata compound. They fired off the obligatory few rounds and chanted their love of Arafat.
At the Mukata hundreds of Palestinians joined media crews as they watched bulldozers and construction crews work through the day and night to quickly clear the rubble kept as a memento of Israel's
antipathy to the Palestinian leader.
By evening the skeleton of a tomb that is to encase the 75-old guerrilla-turned national leader was largely completed. It lay just a few feet from a stand of cypress trees - the only vegetation inside the embattled compound.
youth roamed the streets, many with black armbands wrapped around their upper arms. One young man, Muhammad Abu Daha, wore an M-16 bullet as an amulet tied to his keffiyeh. Tanzim
activists drove around town in the early part of the day, dumping tires onto little pyres which billowed thick black smoke into air. Here and there young men and women blamed Israel for Arafat's death.
Even the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group which recently disavowed the Fatah movement, paid homage to the leader.
They pasted a yellow taxi van with Arafat posters and cutouts from Thursday's late edition of the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam.
In a leaflet they hastily glued to the van the group declared that from now on it will be known as "The Aksa Martyrs Brigade - the Brigades of Martyr Yasser Arafat." Around them about 200 Palestinians milled around waiting for protests that never materialized. "I expected more people," said Khalida Jarar, head of the Prisoners' Club in Ramallah.
"This is the passing of our only president. But I suppose people assembled all over Gaza
and the West Bank in smaller gatherings," she said outside Arafat's Mukata compound Thursday morning.
Having been mauled by the press for over two weeks, most Palestinians had prepared seemingly stock answers to reporters' questions.
"Yasser Arafat was like a father to us. He is the only Palestinian leader," said many in what sounded like a preprogrammed eulogy. Some, like Khawla Mansour, had trekked to the Mukata without a clear explanation of their attraction. "I have not slept in the past two days waiting for the news," said the teacher.
Originally published November 12, 2004