Palestinians swarm Yasser Arafat's coffin at burial in Ramallah

Saturday, November 13, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat was buried Friday in the place where he spent his last years as a virtual prisoner, seen off in a huge and chaotic outpouring of grief for the man who embodied the Palestinian people's dream of statehood.

Police firing in the air failed to restore order as the tens of thousands of mourners rushed toward the coffin, struggling to be close to their leader -- hailed as a Nobel Peace laureate and branded a terrorist -- for one final time.

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

The frenzied burial took place at Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Israel had kept him under siege for nearly three years. It came just hours after an orderly funeral ceremony in Cairo, where the only outburst of emotion was the quiet weeping of Arafat's 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa, standing beside her veiled mother, Suha.

Where that service gave foreign dignitaries an opportunity to bid a formal farewell to the 75-year-old Palestinian leader, his burial in Ramallah allowed the Palestinian masses, who adored Arafat even as the United States and Israel tried to marginalize him, to say goodbye.

In accordance with his wishes, Palestinians wanted to bury Arafat in Jerusalem at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, which lies atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples. Israel refused, fearing chaos and a strengthened Palestinian claim to the city.

Nearby Ramallah was the compromise site. Palestinian officials buried him in a concrete box so they could move him to Jerusalem as soon as possible. Soil from Al Aqsa was sprinkled into the grave.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians from across the West Bank converged on Arafat's compound.

The Palestinians prepared a dignified burial ceremony, erecting a raised marble-and-tile platform under a small copse of trees at the edge of the compound's parking lot to mark Arafat's grave. They then awaited the Egyptian military helicopter bringing Arafat.

But outside the compound walls, the gathering mourners, who were supposed to stay out until after the burial, grew impatient, chanting, "We want to see Abu Ammar," Arafat's nom de guerre.

Teenagers found a gap and slipped in; outnumbered police quickly opened the gate.

The crowd, waving Palestinian flags and banging drums, swarmed inside as security forces formed a cordon to make room for the two-helicopter flight. But it collapsed as mourners rushed the aircraft, delaying the unloading for 25 minutes and forcing police to fire in the air.

The flag-draped coffin was finally removed and placed on a jeep. Police jumped on top of it, waved and flashed the victory sign. People chanted, "With our blood and our soul we will redeem you Yasser Arafat!" and the frenzied crowd pulled the red, green, white and black flag off the coffin.

The military ceremony and a lying-in-state were shelved and Arafat was buried after a few prayers.

His bodyguards wept and embraced. One policeman knelt on the marble and kissed the stone. Olive saplings planted around the grave according to Islamic tradition were trampled. By nightfall, Arafat's grave was covered in a mountain of flags, flowers and the checkered headdress that was his trademark.

"Everyone wants to tell his sons and grandsons, when Arafat died he approached the coffin and touched the coffin or saw the body from close up," explained 27-year-old accountant Rafat Abdullah.

But the pandemonium and bursts of gunfire were at odds with the image of control and orderliness that Arafat's successors wanted to portray.

"It is not what we expected," said Erekat. "I expected much better, more organized, but things got out of hand, unfortunately."

His burial stood in stark contrast to the highly scripted funeral ceremony in Cairo, which was set up to accommodate Arab leaders who refuse to step on Israeli-controlled soil.

The ceremony was restricted to some foreign leaders and officials, among them Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah of Brunei and South African President Thabo Mbeki, who expressed their condolences to Palestinian officials in a tent.

After prayers in the small mosque, eight pallbearers carried Arafat's flag-draped coffin to a gun carriage. As it was loaded onto a plane, his daughter, Zahwa, standing beside mother, wept.

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