RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat’s body was being flown back to the Mideast for funeral services after French and Palestinian officials honored him Thursday with a ceremony befitting a head of state.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, stifled sobs as the Palestinian flag-draped coffin of her 75-year-old husband was carried off a military helicopter to an official French aircraft. It then left for Cairo, Egypt, where funeral services will be held Friday.
Arafat, revered as the champion of Palestinian statehood and reviled as a terrorist, died Thursday morning, spreading spasms of grief among Palestinians and rekindling calls for new peace talks with Israel.
Arafat’s death marked a turning point in modern Middle East history, leaving the Palestinians without a strong leader for the first time in four decades and arousing fears of a chaotic power struggle that could lead to fighting in the streets.
In a hurried effort to project continuity, the PLO elected former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as its new chief, virtually ensuring he will succeed Arafat as leader of the Palestinians, at least for an interim period.
The Palestinian legislature also swore in Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh as caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority until elections can be held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law.
Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. Paris time (9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday) at a French military hospital. Neither his doctors nor Palestinian leaders said what killed him.
“He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people,” said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears announcing his death.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thousands ran into the streets, clutching his photograph, crying and wondering how they would survive without the man who embodied their struggle for statehood.
“He is our father,” Namia Abu-Safia, 48, said sobbing in the Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. “He is Palestine.”
Black smoke from burning tires rose across the Gaza Strip and gunmen fired into the air in grief. Palestinian flags at Arafat’s battered compound here were lowered to half-staff. Somber music played on the radio, church bells rang out and Quranic verses blared over mosque loudspeakers.
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, decided to change its name to the Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigades.
Fearing the grief could rapidly turn into rioting, Israel quickly moved to seal of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increased security at Jewish settlements.
Arafat’s health began deteriorating last month, and he was rushed to France on Oct. 29 for emergency medical treatment, marking the first time in nearly three years he left his compound - where he had been held virtual prisoner by Israel.
Hundreds of mourners lining the streets near the Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris shouted, “From Paris to Jerusalem, we are all Palestinians!,” as Arafat’s body was brought to a French army helicopter for a short flight to Villacoublay military airfield.
There, a band played somber music at a small ceremony involving French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Palestinian officials and Suha Arafat. The coffin was borne by eight Republican Guard pallbearers past an honor guard.
Egypt frantically prepared for the funeral service in a military club north of Cairo followed by a short procession led by a horse-drawn carriage. Security forces at Cairo’s airport and elsewhere were put on maximum alert for the arrivals of heads of state and other dignitaries.
After the service, Arafat’s body will be flown to his Ramallah compound for burial.
The Israeli military said all West Bank Palestinians would be allowed to attend, though they would have to pass through checkpoints. Only VIPs will be permitted to come from Gaza, a military official said, adding that Israel had information that terror groups would use the funeral to plan an attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has shunned his longtime nemesis as a conniving terrorist and obstructionist, said his death can serve as a “historic turning point in the Middle East” and expressed hope the Palestinians would now work to stop terrorism. In a sign of the enmity the two men shared even in death, Sharon refused to mention Arafat by name.
Insisting that with Arafat at the helm it was impossible to discuss peace with the Palestinians, Sharon pushed forward with his “unilateral disengagement” plan. Under the plan, Israel will evacuate the Gaza Strip next year and continue building a West Bank barrier to separate Israelis from Palestinians.
Israeli officials have said Arafat’s death would have no effect on the plan. And, since Arafat steadfastly refused to groom a successor, it was unlikely any Palestinian leader would emerge in the near future with the clout to make a peace deal with Israel.
Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, called on Israel to resume implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, saying Israel had used its dislike for Arafat as an excuse for avoiding obligations to withdraw from West Bank towns. Israel says the Palestinians failed to meet their plan obligation to crack down on militants.
President Bush described Arafat’s death as a “significant moment” and expressed hope the Palestinians would achieve statehood and peace with Israel.
“During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace,” he said.
French President Jacques Chirac called Arafat as a “man of courage and conviction,” but others were more tempered, reflecting the vastly different images of the Palestinian leader.
“Yasser Arafat’s life stands for the varied and tragic history of the Palestinian people and the Middle East as a whole,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said. “In it were reflected many people’s hopes for peace, but time and again also their disappointments and setbacks.”
As much of his life was filled with controversy, so, too, was Arafat’s death.
Suha Arafat, with whom Arafat had a daughter, initially restricted access to her ailing husband in his final days and publicly accused the Palestinian leadership of trying to usurp his powers. The dramatic dispute was resolved after Palestinian officials flew to France.
Palestinians also demanded Arafat be buried in Jerusalem on the disputed holy site that once held the biblical Jewish temples and now holds Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine.
Israel refused, fearing a Jerusalem burial would strengthen Palestinians’ claims to a city they envision as a capital of a future Palestinian state.
In a compromise, the Palestinians agreed to bury him at his Ramallah compound, the muqata, battered and strewn with rubble from repeated Israeli raids. But they plan to line his grave with soil from the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, said Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah leader, and he will be interred in a cement box so his body can be moved to Jerusalem when the opportunity presents itself.
A visual constant in his checkered keffiyeh headdress, Arafat kept the Palestinians’ cause at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But he fell short of creating a Palestinian state, and, along with other secular Arab leaders of his generation, saw his influence weakened by the rise of radical Islam in recent years.
Revered by his own people, Arafat was reviled by others. He was accused of secretly fomenting attacks on Israelis while proclaiming brotherhood and claiming to have put terrorism aside. Many Israelis felt the paunchy 5-foot, 2-inch Palestinian’s real goal remained the destruction of the Jewish state.
Arafat became one of the world’s most familiar faces after addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, when he entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a sprig.
“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Two decades later, he shook hands at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel’s right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
But the accord quickly unraveled amid mutual suspicions and accusations of treaty violations, and a new round of violence that erupted in the fall of 2000 has killed some 4,000 people, three-quarters of them Palestinian.
“The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace,” Peres said.
The Israeli and U.S. governments said Arafat deserved much of the blame for the derailing of the peace process. Even many of his own people began whispering against Arafat, expressing disgruntlement over corruption, lawlessness and a bad economy in the Palestinian areas.
A resilient survivor of war with Israel, assassination attempts and even a plane crash, Arafat was born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat Al-Qudwa on Aug. 4, 1929, the fifth of seven children of a Palestinian merchant killed in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. There is disagreement whether he was born in Gaza or in Cairo.
Educated as an engineer in Egypt, Arafat served in the Egyptian army and then started a contracting firm in Kuwait. It was there that he founded the Fatah movement, which became the core of the PLO.
After the Arabs’ humbling defeat by Israel in the six-day war of 1967, the PLO thrust itself on the world’s front pages by sending its gunmen out to hijack airplanes, machine-gun airports and seize Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than refugees standing in line for U.N. rations, it was not likely to respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles the situation has changed,” Arafat said.