Palestinians pour out grief over death of President Aasser Arafat, considered enduring symbol of nationalist cause


RAMALLAH, WEST BANK (11 November 2004) RHC -- Palestinians streamed into the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday in an outpouring of grief over the death of President Yasser Arafat, considered the enduring symbol of their nationalist cause. Many shops were shuttered and flags were lowered to half mast as the Palestinian Authority declared a 40-day mourning period. Black smoke from burning tires rose across the occupied territories as militants fired into the air.

Fearing the mourning could turn into widespread Palestinian riots in the coming days, Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip and sent in troop reinforcements around illegal Jewish settlements. Israeli soldiers were ordered not to express happiness at Arafat's death. Arafat's body will now be flown to Egypt, where he will receive a military funeral Friday. He will then return for burial to his battered Ramallah compound, where Israel had kept him imprisoned for three years after staging several raids on the facility and mostly destroying it.

The Israeli government vetoed a burial at Jerusalem's al-Asqa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, fearing it would undermine its claim to the city. Palestinian leaders, however, revealed that Arafat will be buried in a stone coffin, not a wooden one, to allow his re-interment at a later time in Jerusalem when, said one Palestinian official, "we will eventually have a Palestinian state." The Israeli military said it would restrict access to the burial, allowing only Palestinians with permits to attend, but will allow mourners to hold processions in towns and refugee camps.

Meanwhile, speculation abounded over how Arafat's death might affect the virtually defunct Middle East peace process. Israel and the United States, which accused Arafat of terrorism, said the late Palestinian leader was not a viable partner in peace talks. But with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asserting that Palestinians now have an opportunity to fight terror, while indicating no concessions, some believe Israel will find more excuses to continue its oppressive occupation and unilateral measures.

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