Egypt prepares for Arafat's funeral - East Valley Tribune: News

Egypt prepares for Arafat's funeral

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Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004 8:53 pm | Updated: 4:48 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

CAIRO, Egypt - Egypt prepared Thursday for a strictly controlled military funeral for Yasser Arafat where dignitaries from around the world will pay their respects, but where the people - among whom Arafat was by far more popular - will be mostly shut out.

More on the Life of Yasser Arafat

The quick appointment of successors did little to dispel the huge question marks now hanging over Mideast peace efforts.

Although Arafat's death at 75 led some world leaders to talk about the possibility of a new era, the outlook was also shadowed by fears of a chaotic transition and a strengthening of Islamic militants.

The burial arrangements in themselves showed how disrupted the region is. The international funeral was to be held in Egypt, because few Arab leaders would travel to Israeli-controlled Palestinian land; Arafat was to be buried in the West Bank town of Ramallah because Israel refused to approve interment in Jerusalem; and most mourners from the Gaza Strip would be barred from traveling across Israeli territory to Ramallah, a security official said.

Workers in Cairo scrambled to lay new carpet and mow the lawn at a small mosque near the airport where dozens of foreign dignitaries will honor the Palestinian leader in a modest ceremony Friday morning, before Arafat's body is flown to Ramallah for a burial service.

In France, where Arafat died before dawn Thursday after 13 nights in a Paris military hospital, eight pallbearers carried his flag-draped coffin past an honor guard Thursday evening as a military band played the French and Palestinian national anthems and a Chopin funeral march.

Arafat's widow, Suha, stifled sobs as the coffin was transferred from a French military helicopter to the official French airplane heading to Egypt.

Though it had been expected for several days as he fell into a coma, Arafat's death stunned Palestinians and left them wondering who could possibly replace their leader of the last four decades.

Arafat had not anointed a successor, but within hours the Palestine Liberation Organization elected former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to replace him as its new chief, virtually ensuring he takes over as Palestinian leader, at least for now.

The Palestinian legislature also swore in Speaker Rauhi Fattouh as caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority, the self-ruling power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though that position will likely have far less power than when Arafat held it. Fattouh is to serve for 60 days until elections can be held, though the law may be amended to allow parliament to choose the new president.

Thousands of Palestinians flooded the streets, many weeping and clutching Arafat's photo. Even members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups, often critical of Arafat, mourned his death.

Safra Hassan gave birth to twin boys in Gaza a few hours after Arafat died and said she was naming them Yasser and Arafat. "I'm so proud that the name of Yasser Arafat will be in my house every day, just as the name of Yasser Arafat will be in every Palestinian house forever," she said.

Black smoke from burning tires rose across the Gaza Strip and gunmen fired symbolic volleys into the air. At Arafat's battered Ramallah compound where he will be buried, flags flew at half staff. The radio played somber music, church bells in the partly Christian city rang out, and Quranic verses were played for hours over mosque loudspeakers.

By Thursday evening, though, the mourning had given way to subdued candlelight vigils.

The Palestinian Cabinet declared 40 days of mourning, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Gaza, a militant group linked to Arafat's Fatah movement and responsible for many suicide bombings in Israel, changed its name to the Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigades.

Palestinian refugees scattered in neighboring countries, for whom Arafat symbolized the dreams of returning to their homes in Israel, marched shouting "Death to Israel" and "We will return to Palestine." Some burned American and Israeli flags.

"It feels like I lost a father and a good friend," said 55-year-old Mohammed Sbeiha in Jordan.

Though Israel sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increased security at Jewish settlements, the mourning occasionally turned to violence as Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli cars and soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, the army said.

Palestinians from across the West Bank will be allowed to attend the burial, but only a select official group will be let in from Gaza, according to a security official who asked to remain anonymous. Palestinian forces will be responsible for security inside Ramallah, but Israel will ring the city with troops.

The Palestinians originally insisted Arafat be buried in Jerusalem in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest shrine, built on the hill worshipped by Jews as the site of the biblical Jewish temples.

Israel refused, fearing it would strengthen the Palestinians' claims to a city they envision as a capital of a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians eventually agreed to lay Arafat to rest at his compound, the Muqata, battered and strewn with rubble from repeated Israeli raids. They will line his grave with soil from Al Aqsa, said Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah leader, and bury him in a bare concrete box so he can be reinterred in Jerusalem whenever possible.

Meanwhile, Egypt prepared a funeral at a military club near Cairo's international airport. Security was at maximum around the airport and plainclothes officers were stationed at apartment buildings, mosques, and Cairo's main train station.

Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians in the four years of violence that broke out when the last Israeli peace talks with Arafat collapsed.

Heads of state from countries including Jordan and South Africa, were expected to attend, along with many foreign ministers.

Even as his funeral was being prepared, some leaders saw opportunity. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Arafat's passing "could be a historic turning point for the Middle East" and President Bush called it "a significant moment in Palestinian history."

But both Sharon and Abbas, the new Palestinian chief, face severe pressures from their own hard-liners, and as is often the case in the Middle East is, the first question is who is obligated to make the first move in the post-Arafat era. Israel is sure to be pressed for gestures to boost Abbas' credibility, while Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom says the new Palestinian leadership "will have to prove itself" before a peace process can go forward.

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