Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dies at 75

arafat portrait 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arafat portrait 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the Palestinian people, died before dawn Thursday in Paris at the age of 75. The death of the Palestinian Authority chairman sparked a slew of mixed reactions, including a vow on the part of Palestinian factions to escalate violence and a suggestion by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the Middle East may soon see better times. Arab and Muslim heads of state and government, as well as foreign ministers from Europe and other continents, are expected to attend the funeral in Cairo, but most of the world's heads of state and government are expected to shun the funeral and send instead either foreign ministers or lower-level representatives. Arafat's coffin will be flown from Cairo aboard an Egyptian military helicopter to Ramallah, where he will be buried in his Mukata compound. As Arafat's successors on Thursday took pains to stress their commitment to the peace process and a new era, representatives of various factions published a statement vowing to step up the fight against Israel. A closure was imposed on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in preparation for the funeral as security forces focused their attention on Ramallah and the Temple Mount, where worshipers will gather for the final Ramadan prayers. Throughout the day Thursday in Gaza and major West Bank cities, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets, mourning their leader and torching tires. Security forces were instructed to exercise restraint, but in a number of cases were forced to use rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the mobs, which threw stones, rocks, cement blocks, and in some cases bombs at troops. On Thursday night, hundreds of young Palestinians converged on the Mukata compound with a similar message: escalate the intifada. "We will march toward Jerusalem, we will sacrifice millions on the way," they chanted, echoing Arafat's famous battle cry. The mourners demanded an immediate investigation into the circumstances of Arafat's death, saying they believed he had been poisoned by Israel. "Israel will pay a heavy price for this crime," said one of the protesters. "We are convinced that Israel killed the president with the help of Palestinian collaborators." Former Arafat adviser Bassam Abu Sharif said the Palestinians feel that their leader's absence places "huge" challenges before them. "If anyone believes that the new Palestinian leadership will accept [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's expansionist plans, he is mistaken," said Abu Sharif. "Arafat's positions have become a red line which no Palestinian will be able to cross." Top Fatah operative Hussein al-Sheikh confirmed that the Palestinians were headed toward an escalation. "We will continue to believe the gun is the way to get rid of the occupation," he said. "This is Abu Amar's promise and this is his will and we will continue to be true to them." In Jerusalem, however, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Arafat's death could signify a "historic turning point" in the Middle East. "Israel, which is a peace-seeking country, will of course continue with its efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians without delay," Sharon said, speaking Thursday before a meeting with Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini. Sharon also urged the new Palestinian leadership to wage war on terror. "I hope that the new Palestinian leadership that will arise will understand that progress in relations and in the resolution of problems depends - first and foremost - on the cessation of terrorism and their fighting terrorism," Sharon added. Sharon said that his unilateral disengagement plan's implementation would continue as planned, but that if a new Palestinian leadership emerged which would comply with the requirements of the road map, then the plan may be opened up for negotiations. Arafat's death was officially announced shortly before 6 a.m. on Thursday in Paris. The cause of death was not disclosed. "The brother, the president, Yasser Arafat, passed away with God's satisfaction," his aide, Tayyeb Abdel Rahim, announced at a press conference in Ramallah early on Thursday morning. "He closed his eyes, and his big heart stopped. He left for God, but he is still among this great people," said Abdel Rahim, breaking into tears. Arafat's body was flown from Paris to Cairo aboard a white Airbus A-319 plane of the French presidency. Eight French infantry soldiers took out the coffin covered with the Palestinian flag from a military helicopter at the Villacoublay military airport, west of Paris. Among the mourners was Arafat's widow, Suha, who broke into tears. In Egypt, security forces were put on maximum alert as workers spruced up the King Faisal bin Abdel Aziz Mosque at Cairo's international airport in preparation for the military funeral, which is due to start at 11 a.m. Friday's service will be relatively simple, reflecting the security concerns of Egyptian officials, who sought a venue for condolence calls that limited any risk of violence. Roads near the airport mosque were expected to be closed off during the service. Arafat's body will be borne by a horse-drawn carriage for a short way after the prayer at the mosque on the airport grounds. It then will be taken to a nearby military base and flown out of Egypt. In addition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, other heads of state who have so far announced they will attend the Cairo funeral are Jordan's King Abdullah II and the presidents of Yemen, Algeria, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is also slated to attend the ceremony, along with the foreign ministers of Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. Iran is also sending its foreign minister, while Pakistan will be represented at the ceremony by its prime minister. As of Thursday evening, Israel had not received requests by any of these dignitaries to attend the burial in Ramallah. While the world's statesmen won't be on hand in Ramallah, Government Press Office head Daniel Seaman said that some 700 journalists from around the world have arrived in Israel over the last few days to cover the funeral. IDF spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said the IDF will be placed on alert around Ramallah but will not interfere with the funeral. "Israel hopes that the funeral will be conducted in a dignified way, but if we need to act, we will do so," she said. Feingold said that the IDF has "concrete information" that some terror cells will try to use the flow of people to and from Ramallah in an attempt to carry out a terrorist attack. According to Feingold, who would not say how big a funeral the IDF is preparing for, any Palestinian from the West Bank can go to the ceremony provided that they arrive on public transportation. She said this is being coordinated between the PA and the IDF. Feingold said that Gaza residents will not be allowed to travel to Ramallah for the funeral, with the exception of approved lists of VIPs. Israelis wanting to attend will have to enter Ramallah by foot from the Beituniya check post. Asked how the IDF would respond if the Palestinians try to march with Arafat's body to Jerusalem, Feingold would only say "we are prepared for any scenario." Following the announcement of Arafat's death, the Palestinian Legislative Council convened an emergency session in Ramallah to swear in Rouhi Fattouh as the new PA chairman to replace Arafat. "I swear by Almighty God to protect the nation, the homeland and its sacred places and respect the law and take care of the interests of the people," Fattouh said. His voice breaking with emotion, the 55-year-old Fattouh pledged to "follow the same path Arafat walked." Fattouh also said he wanted to assure the international community that the new Palestinian leadership was committed to "a fair and just peace." Under Palestinian law, the parliament speaker is to be sworn in as president and serve as caretaker for 60 days while the PA prepares for democratic elections. Former PLO secretary-general Mahmoud Abbas was elected by the organization Thursday to replace Arafat as head of the PLO executive committee. Meanwhile, hard-line PLO "foreign minister" Farouk Kaddoumi was elected chairman of the Fatah Central Committee, one of the most important Palestinian decision- making bodies. Kaddoumi, who is based in Tunis, is strongly opposed to the Oslo Accords and has refused to return to the Palestinian territories in protest against the signing of the agreements. His sudden return to the fore is likely to complicate a brewing post-Arafat power struggle since he is at odds with most of the new Palestinian leadership. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said she was aware that the PA was entering a difficult time following Arafat's death. "Now is the time to make sure that constitutional and institutional integrity are maintained," she said. But at most of the rallies organized in honor of Arafat in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian activists pledged that the intifada would continue "until the liberation of all the occupied lands and the establishment of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital." Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups issued separate leaflets calling on the Palestinians to escalate the "struggle" against Israel in the post-Arafat era. "We must continue the fight in order to fulfill President Arafat's dream," read one of the leaflets. Another said Arafat's death should serve as a "trigger" for a new intifada against Israel. The leaders of Hamas and other radical groups in Syria also urged the Palestinians to follow in Arafat's footsteps and to continue with the intifada. Originally published November 12, 2004