Arafat's funeral marked by gunfire and tears

crowd arafat coffin 29  (photo credit: )
crowd arafat coffin 29
(photo credit: )
With thousands of bullets blasted skyward, it was a fitting send-off for a man who had taken to wearing a pistol holstered on his hip. Tens of thousands of mourners, some of them spraying automatic rifle fire into the air, swept aside more than 1,000 Palestinian security personnel as well as the Palestinian Authority's meticulous plans for a somber funeral ceremony as they bade an emotional farewell Friday to Yasser Arafat, the only leader they ever knew. The day began with a staid memorial service in Cairo, restricted to world leaders and state officials, that resonated with one of the images the Palestinian leader had cultivated - Arafat the statesman. But in Ramallah, the snarl of mourners who trampled the red carpet rolled out to Arafat's helicopter and rhythmically chanted his name as if celebrating a rock-star, conjured up the other image - Arafat the militant icon. Save for Hadash MKs Muhammad Barakei, Issam Mahoul, and Ahmed Tibi, no Israelis attended either ceremony. Arafat's wife, Suha, and his nine-year-old daughter, Zahwa, chose to attend the quiet Cairo ceremony only. Palestinian leaders, including new PLO Executive Committee Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and acting PA Chairman Raouhi Fatouh, returned to the gravesite for a quieter memorial service Saturday. There, Qurei promised to push ahead with elections for a new PA chairman, slated for January 9, as stipulated in PA Basic Law. The PA had planned a funeral timed to the minute, with plenty of photo-ops of Arafat's anguished successors laying wreaths at his black and white marble funeral mound packed with earth transferred from Jerusalem's Aksa Mosque - where Arafat had asked to be buried. But raw emotion from Arafat's beloved people dashed the timetables and shunted his successors aside. After a short prayer session in the Mukata, where Arafat had spent the better part of the last three years, since Israel confined him to the compound, the coffin was quickly set in its grave and packed with the "holy earth" over which wreaths were then laid. It was a fitting end. As Arafat clung for life at a French hospital over the past two weeks, residents of Ramallah preferred to remember the aging fighter as a man who took personal interest in average Palestinians, and who preferred to keep his rivals and subordinates out of the loop when sharing his largesse. The thousands of mourners who spilled over the Mukata's walls to peek at history roared as one when the Egyptian military helicopters bearing Arafat's coffin and his entourage thundered over the compound, circling the throng once before diving downward. The choppers' blades kicked up sheets of dust which swept up with them hundreds of Arafat posters. At first, Palestinian police and soldiers fired off entire magazines in an attempt to keep the mourners from enveloping the helicopters. Then they seemed to do it for the celebratory effect. Masked gunmen joined in the manic gunfire, which ceased only two hours later. Palestinian officials later said that nine people were wounded, one critically, from the gunfire. Hundreds more were treated for various injuries, including falling off walls, being trampled, and dehydration - aggravated by a blazing sun and the widely-observed Ramadan fast. The mayhem sent dignitaries from diplomatic missions based in Jerusalem and Ramallah scurrying for protection. They found themselves huddled in a corner of the Mukata where Arafat himself had taken shelter during Israel's periodic raids. As panicked Palestinian guards and officials inside the aircraft deliberated on how to transfer the coffin, the Palestinian marching band played bravely on, pounding out a steady drum-roll for their leader. In a 21-gun salute gone wild, the staccato of the AK-47s eventually drowned out the band, which was then absorbed by the crowd. At one point, Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat and former minister Yasser Abed Rabbo peeked out the gangway and begged the crowd - in vain - to clear some space. A jeep bulled into the crowd, sending mourners scurrying aside, as its driver worked to back the vehicle up to the helicopter in order to transport Arafat's coffin to his grave. Eventually, the helicopter's side portal opened and Arafat's coffin slid out, bobbing on a sea of soldiers and mourners. When the Palestinian flag draped over the coffin slipped off, mourners replaced it with a black-checkered keffiyeh - Arafat's trademark. Crowd control plagued the Palestinian security forces from the start. While the marching bands practiced at the helicopter landing pads, the Palestinian honor guard stomped out of step. "It has been a while since we had something to celebrate," apologized an officer securing one of the rooftops opposite the launch pad. Meantime, thousands of onlookers ensconced themselves on the compound's walls. To improve their view, they handily tore away metal fencing. In the days since Arafat's death, the Mukata had undergone a major makeover. The blue barrels labeled as "explosive" and filled with concrete to stop Israeli tanks were removed, and served as thick flag poles. Mounds of rubble and the hulks of vehicles pancaked by IDF tanks were cleared. Even before the helicopters had landed, thousands of mourners had swarmed ever closer to the landing site. Two weeks of humiliating apathy for the dying leader were redeemed by the outpouring of emotion: everyone wanted to touch the man they call "the president," and grab a part of history as well. A fire truck had been moved toward the crowd. A man on the bullhorn called to the mass: "All those who love Abu Amar [Arafat], please sit down." Some took the bait, but then leapt to their feet. "No one wants to miss anything," explained Jamal Hussein, who had trekked through the hills from Jerusalem, circumventing IDF checkpoints, to attend the funeral. "To us, Arafat means Palestine," he said from a rooftop overlooking the compound. "To know our problems you need to know Arafat. Abu Amar is part of every Palestinian. He is even in the air we breathe." The hum of the generators belonging to the masses of media present for the spectacle kept up the suspense; they were often mistaken for the far-away din of helicopters. The PA had published a protocol which called for the burial and funeral to begin at 2:35 p.m. and lasting until 4 p.m., followed by "condolences" by foreign dignitaries beginning at 4:30. "It wasn't as planned," acknowledged former Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh, "but I'm happy that the people here have the full right to come and say goodbye to their leader," according to The New York Times. Arafat's exit from Ramallah 16 days earlier, when he feebly blew kisses to a few dozen onlookers and struggled to keep his hat from falling down over his face, had been somewhat ignoble. But he would have loved to witness his return. Originally published November 14, 2004