- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Mahmoud Abbas, an experienced negotiator and a former prime minister, was named chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization yesterday within hours of Yasser Arafat’s death. This puts him on a track to become the next overall leader of the Palestinians.

As thousands of mourners filled the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to pay tribute to Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader’s body was flown from Paris to Cairo for a state funeral at a mosque near the international airport.

Heads of state and diplomats from most of the world are expected to pay their last respects at the ceremony today, after which the coffin will be flown to Ramallah for burial tomorrow.

Of the about 50 state delegations at the Cairo funeral, most will be led by foreign ministers of their respective countries.

Among the heads of state attending are Jordan’s King Abdullah, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Presidents Iajuddin Ahmed of Bangladesh and newly elected Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia. South African President Thabo Mbeki and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade also are on the guest list.

The attendees will constitute the highest-profile gathering of international leaders in the region since the funeral of former Syrian President Hafez Assad in 2000.

The U.S. representative will be William Burns, a senior American diplomat and Middle East specialist.

The cause of Mr. Arafat’s death at a hospital outside Paris yesterday morning remained a mystery. French military doctors who treated the Palestinian leader said it was “private information” for his family only.

“I have no declaration to make on that subject,” a spokesman for the French military’s medical service, Christian Estripeau, told Agence France-Presse.

The only persons in a position to reveal the medical secret are Mr. Arafat’s family, primarily his wife, Suha.

It also was not clear whether the Palestinians would be able to recover billions of dollars placed in secret accounts by Mr. Arafat.

“The billions in foreign aid that Arafat kept under his personal control are now being reviewed by his former accountant, with the expectation that the Palestinian Authority will assume control of it soon,” one American intelligence source told The Washington Times.

Tension rose in Israel, which is worried that memorial ceremonies for Mr. Arafat could spark violence.

The Israeli military authorities sealed off West Bank cities, and Jerusalem police were put on high alert in case Friday Muslim prayer services at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem deteriorate into rioting.

Mr. Arafat had hoped to be buried on Temple Mount, which Muslims call the Nobel Sanctuary, but Israel refused to allow his burial inside Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there would be no change in policy toward the Palestinians unless the new leadership acts against terrorists. However, he held out prospects for renewed peace talks if Palestinian leaders restrain terrorists who target Israeli civilians.

The chance for peace would rise “if after the Arafat era, there is a different, serious and responsible leadership which will carry out its commitments under the road map,” Mr. Sharon said.

“There can be a potential opportunity to coordinate different measures with that leadership and even renew the political negotiations.”

Mr. Abbas has criticized terrorist bombings against Israel and shook hands with Mr. Sharon last year before resigning as prime minister in frustration over his lack of authority.

Now, as the leader of the PLO — the movement whose influence surpasses that of the Palestinian Authority — Mr. Abbas appears to be the front-runner to become the leading candidate in presidential elections, scheduled in two months.

The terrorist group Hamas, which hasn’t decided whether it will run a candidate for president, published a mourning leaflet yesterday calling for the continuation of suicide bombings against Israel.

Hours after Mr. Arafat’s death, most Palestinians described him as an irreplaceable leader who was the founding father of Palestinian nationalism.

“Yasser Arafat’s legacy will be as the leader who united the Palestinian people, the leader who kept the Palestinian national identity from extinction and the man who initiated the peace of the brave,” said Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.

At a special session of the Palestinian parliament, tears rolled down lawmakers’ eyes as Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was sworn in as interim president.

“You are not the president; you are a caretaker,” shouted a distraught lawmaker in the middle of the ceremony.

Ramallah was awash in smiling images of Mr. Arafat on the doors of shops that were shuttered for the mourning period. Demonstrators made their way through Al-Manara Square, with marchers vowing to avenge Mr. Arafat’s death and masked gunmen firing machine-gun rounds.

“We don’t want the government of Allawi,” said Yousef Sha’an, 26, likening Mr. Abbas to the U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. “This is what the Americans and Israelis want. Whatever Israel wants is not the will of Palestinians.”

The sky over Ramallah dimmed during the day by gray plumes of smoke rising from burning tires.

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