Arafat buried after tens of thousands give him an emotional, chaotic farewell

Friday, November 12th 2004, 6:38 am
By: News On 6

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Yasser Arafat was laid to rest in a marble-and-stone tomb Friday after his flag-draped coffin was borne through a sea of emotional Palestinians who swarmed the helicopter that brought him from a state funeral in Egypt.

Police fired wildly into the air to keep back the surging crowd at the West Bank compound known as the Muqata, where Arafat spent his last years as a virtual prisoner.

After Arafat's body was lowered into the ground, Muslim clerics read Quranic verses and the late leader's bodyguards wept and embraced each other.

Frantic mourners surged toward the tomb, trampling the olive tree saplings that were planted around the site according to Islamic tradition. One policeman knelt on the marble and kissed the stone.

A black-and-white checkered keffiyeh was planted on a stick in the soil, arranged in the way Arafat habitually wore his traditional headdress. The Palestinians consider the gravesite temporary _ a place for Arafat's body until they can honor his request to be buried in Jerusalem.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said the pandemonium was a sign of love.

``President Arafat would have wanted it this way, with exhilaration, feelings of loyalty, pain, sadness and love all at once,'' she said. ``The people reclaimed him. They wanted to say goodbye without distance.''

An Egyptian helicopter carrying Arafat's coffin landed at the Muqata at midafternoon and was immediately rushed by tens of thousands of mourners.

Hundreds of Palestinian security guards tried for 25 minutes to open the helicopter door to remove the coffin onto a jeep that had plowed through the crowd to clear a path.

Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the PLO, and Omar Suleiman, Egypt's director of intelligence, tried to get out of the helicopter, but were kept back at first by the huge, chaotic crowd.

As the coffin was carried toward the gravesite, police jumped on top of it, waved their arms and flashed the victory sign. People chanted, ``With our blood and our soul we will redeem you Yasser Arafat!''

Stretchers carried away two people who were trampled in the melee.

Under the crush of screaming mourners, plans were hastily scrapped for a stately ceremony with Palestinian officials filing past his coffin.

Some mourners were disappointed they could not properly pay their respects.

``I wanted to say goodbye and I didn't get a chance. I didn't get a glimpse of his coffin,'' said Hadeje Abu Sharif, 52, a diabetic who fainted during the frenzy. ``We have no organization. If we had it, we would have a state.''

The failure of police to control the pandemonium augured poorly for Palestinian hopes to maintain order in the wake of Arafat's death.

Hours earlier, mourners had burst through the gates of the Muqata and climbed over the walls of the compound, thwarting attempts by armed police to hold them back. Police scrambled to keep them off the landing pad.

As Arafat's helicopter touched down, the crowd cried out, ``Welcome, welcome Abu Ammar!'' using his nom de guerre. ``Welcome, welcome old man!''

Buildings and windshields in the West Bank and Gaza were plastered with Arafat's photo and people waved black and white scarves, the colors of his Fatah movement. In Gaza City, hundreds gathered on rooftops, streets and apartment balconies in hopes of catching a glimpse of Arafat's helicopter. Barred from attending the burial, many Gaza residents held symbolic funerals across the strip.

A small group of masked gunmen marched into the Muqata, ignoring calls from official Palestine TV not to carry arms or mask faces, as is common in Palestinian funerals during times of crisis. However, the gunmen calmly submitted to inspection by plainclothes security who ensured there were no bullets in the chambers.

The cooperation between militants and policemen was a likely reflection of Palestinians' desire for consensus in the wake of Arafat's death.

The 75-year-old Arafat, who led the Palestinians for four decades, died Thursday at a Paris hospital from an undisclosed illness that had plunged him into a weeklong coma. He had spent his final three years confined to his headquarters, never leaving out of fear the Israelis wouldn't allow him back in.

On Friday, teenage boys climbed onto the walls of the compound chanting, ``Whoever poisoned Arafat, we will drink his blood.'' Others cried out, ``Allahu akbar,'' Arabic for ``God is great,'' and ``We want to see Abu Ammar.''

Top Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim asked the crowd to stop chanting.

``The whole world is watching us now on television and we have to reflect our real picture,'' he said.

Israeli police, ordered to stay on the sidelines of the burial, were on their highest state of alert and canceled all leaves, worried that the prayers for the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, together with mourning for Arafat, would get out of control. In Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian youths who were barred from prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque _ Islam's third-holiest shrine _ scuffled with police.

Egypt gave Arafat a state funeral in Cairo, even though he never realized his dream of Palestinian statehood.

The service began amid heavy security with humble prayers at a mosque in a military compound and ended with a procession, his flag-draped wooden casket set on a horse-drawn gun carriage and followed by presidents and kings.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as well as Abbas and Farouk Kaddoumi, the newly chosen leader of the Fatah organization, were among the dignitaries who marched behind the casket on a residential street a short distance toward a military airfield. Doors and shutters of homes along the route were closed, and the street was sealed off.

Arafat's veiled widow, Suha, and their rarely seen 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa, wept as the Palestinian and Egyptian national anthems were played by a band before the casket was loaded aboard an Egyptian military plane. The jet flew to el-Arish, in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where the casket was transferred to the helicopter.

Among the dignitaries who attended the Cairo ceremony were Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah of Brunei, South African President Thabo Mbeki, European Union Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana and Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.

The United States, which had labeled Arafat an obstacle to peace, sent Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. Israel sent no delegation.

``Yasser Arafat was more important for Palestinian identity than their flag and their national anthem,'' said Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. envoy for the Middle East and a key player in the talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord, in an interview with the AP at the funeral service.

He said he hoped the new Palestinian leadership would return to peace negotiations with Israel.

In Washington, President Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and said there was a ``great chance to establish a Palestinian state.''

He put much of the onus on the new Palestinian leadership, adding that the United States is ``looking forward to working with Palestinian leaders who are committed to fighting terrorism and committed to democratic reform,'' Bush said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said Israel had ``no problem'' with Bush saying he'll push for Palestinian statehood in the next four years.

``There is a two-state solution based on the fact that they have to first stop terrorim before there is a state. ... The disengagement plan offers an opportunity ... to return to the roadmap to peace.