RAMALLAH, West Bank (Nov. 12)
Tarek Abdel Geneh held onto the hands of his fellow Arab Israeli friends and together they pushed their way through the sea of mourners clamoring to reach the burial of Yasser Arafat. A black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh draped on his shoulders, the tall public-policy student said he felt it was important to make the journey from his home in Haifa to Ramallah for the historic day.
“It’s a day of mourning for the Palestinian nation as well as the Arab and Muslim world,” said Abdel Geneh, 24. “He’s a symbol for Palestinians. Since the 1960s we have known no other leader.”
Arafat, who died Nov. 11 at a military hospital outside Paris at age 75, was buried Friday in a chaotic scene in the ruins of his Ramallah compound following a state funeral in Cairo.
Egyptian helicopters flew Arafat’s body and accompanying Palestinian Authority leaders from Cairo to a parking lot near the burial site in Ramallah, Ha’aretz reported.
From there, a jeep carrying the casket crawled through the crowd, with P.A. security men sprawling over the coffin to protect it, at times hurling mourners off the casket when they clambered atop. At one point, the Palestinian flag adorning the coffin was ripped off the casket and was replaced with the type of Arab head covering that Arafat habitually wore.
As the coffin reached the burial site, Islamic clerics recited verses from the Koran, and the casket was lowered into the grave. The coffin reportedly was built with hooks on the bottom so that at some point it may be possible to unearth it and bring it to Jerusalem. Arafat wanted to be buried on the Temple Mount, but Israel refused to allow it.
Israel declined to send a representative to the funeral. Though some Israeli officials had come to regard Arafat in the 1990s as a potential partner for peace, his continued use of terrorism as a diplomatic tool led Israeli officials to repudiate him definitively after the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada two months later.
However, a few Israelis did attend, including a group of 30 Arabs from Haifa led by Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy center for Israeli Arabs.
Farah calmly guided the group amid the pushing and shouting crowds and the bullets fired into the air by young militants carrying assault rifles, making sure everyone stayed together.
As part of the Palestinian people they felt obliged to pay their respects and mark their presence at the funeral, Farah said.
Arafat “is the leader of the Palestinian nation, and it’s important for us to take part in his funeral. From our point of view the Palestinian nation lives in different parts of the world,” Farah said. Arafat “was the sign of the Palestinian tragedy for years and he helped begin the solution to the conflict.”
The group said they were dismayed by the portrayal of Arafat in the Israeli media and among Israeli leaders as the ultimate villain, a terrorist with no redeeming qualities.
“Arafat organized the Palestinian people and fought for its territory, and he was the first one to support the idea of two states,” said Sameh Kadry. “He wanted to achieve independence, and independence demands the use of force. The Jews who came here were also considered terrorists — how else did they create a country?”
Kadry accused Israeli Jews of a double standard, saying they turn to the world community when Israeli civilians are killed in terrorist attacks but downplay when innocent Palestinian civilians are killed in Israeli army raids and air strikes.
Walking through the sprawling compound of the Mukata, the Palestinian Authority headquarters where Arafat spent the last years of his life under virtual house arrest by Israel, the Arab Israeli group passed by a group of far-left Israeli activists.
Among them was Uri Avnery, believed to be the first Israeli to meet and interview Arafat, in Beirut during the Lebanon war.
The Israeli activists, some of them members of the group Gush Shalom, said they wanted to stand and be counted among the mourners.
“It’s a historical event and I did not want to sit home,” said Anat, a young Israeli woman who did not give her last name. “I wanted to show my solidarity with our Palestinian partners. To be here is a sign of respect. Arafat is a symbol.”
Nabila Shalash, an educational counselor from Haifa, wore a shawl of traditional Palestinian embroidery to Arafat’s burial. She said that Arab Israeli identity at times can be difficult to navigate, but she feels a sense of belonging when she comes to Ramallah.
“It’s a very comfortable feeling. You just hear the Arabic language,” she said.
She said she will miss Arafat.
“Emotionally I wanted to be here. Since I was born we have heard about Abu Amar,” she said referring to Arafat by his nom de guerre. “He is the one who made the world know about the Palestinian issue. He has done a lot for our nation.”
The group then walked up a staircase and into one of the Mukata buildings to pay respects to Arafat’s family.
Soon afterward, the helicopter carrying Arafat’s body descended into throngs who whistled, cheered and shouted out Arafat’s name from nearby rooftops and from every inch of the compound.
Taking in the scene was Firas Attrash, a Ramallah dentist, and his wife Manal Issa, who works for a Palestinian human rights group. Issa was dismayed by the gunfire and mayhem, and was thankful the couple had left their two children at home.
She said she was upset the event was so disorganized.
“It is very difficult to control young Fatah men,” she said, referring to young gunmen from the mainstream PLO faction. “The greatest tragedy would be if people here died not from Israeli bullets but Palestinian ones.”
After Arafat was buried and the crowds began to head home to break the Ramadan fast, a group of Bedouins from the Beersheba area began the trip back to Israel.
“You feel he was everyone’s symbol, everyone’s father,” said Muhammed Makhter, a math teacher from the town of Lekiya.
“It does not matter where you come from, everyone felt the same emotions today,” he said.