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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 21:42 GMT
'Nervous wait' for news of Arafat

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Ramallah

Premature reports of Yasser Arafat's death started to spread through his adopted hometown just before sunset on the most auspicious night of the Muslim calendar.

The young Palestinian guards outside his Muqata headquarters contemptuously dismissed the reports as "outright lies".

Palestinians on life after Arafat

But they looked nervous nevertheless.

As for the rest of Ramallah's population, they were too busy rushing home to break their Ramadan fast to spare much thought for a man who had dominated their political lives since the 1960s.

It's not that they didn't believe that Mr Arafat was dead - each premature report seems more credible than the last - they just didn't seem to bother that much about a man whose time has clearly come in most people's minds.

"Maybe he's dead, maybe not," said a passenger already sitting in the back seat of the taxi I took back to the centre of town.

Irreverent laughter

"Even kings must die eventually... so why should Arafat go on?" he continued phlegmatically.

A Palestinian woman weeps as she hears news of Yasser Arafat's illness
While some Palestinians grieve, others plan for the end of Ramadan

The taxi driver remarked that Israeli newspapers had reported the Palestinian Authority president's death would take place on Laylat al-Qadr (the night of the 26th or 27th day of Ramadan when the Koran was first revealed - that is, possibly tonight) and that was good enough for him.

"As usual, the Israelis know everything and no-one tells us Palestinians anything," he added.

Perhaps undiplomatically, I chipped in that I supposed that Laylat al-Qadr was a good night to die on, since the Doors of Heaven open for all departed souls, according to Islamic tradition.

There was a moment's silence in the taxi. Then a burst of irreverent laughter from both driver and my fellow passenger.

The indifference of these two men was characteristic of a large number of inhabitants of this town - the commercial and political capital of the West Bank as well as the seat of what was left of Arafat's power.

"Look, no-one's unhappy about him," said Ramallah resident Ashraf. "We need new leaders who can make our lives better. Under Arafat it became worse."

Inconvenient mourning

A widespread observation is that if he did die now - was "unplugged" in popular parlance - the period of mourning could hardly come at a more awkward time.

It is only three days before the Eid holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and people are rushing to get their Eid shopping done - new clothes for the kids and festive food, primarily.

Palestinian police take position in Manara Square, Ramallah, as the city waits for news of Arafat
There is some anxiety in Ramallah about a future without Mr Arafat

Mr Arafat dying would be a disaster, they say - all the shops would be closed as a "mark of respect".

Among the younger generation there is perhaps a little more of an emotional response, if hardly more admiration for his achievements.

"We really hope he will come back and live with his people and take up his political role again," says Ala Din Koran, a student at Bir Zeit university.

"But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by what happens to him from the real problem, which is resisting the Israeli occupation of our land."

Tangible nervousness

So for a few hours on Tuesday night - before Mr Arafat's loyal "Old Guard" scotched the rumours with back-to-back press conferences in Ramallah and Paris - many Palestinians thought that their leader had finally died.

And they greeted the news with almost complete equanimity.

Particularly since he has spent the last days hovering between life and death in Percy hospital near Paris - with so much conflicting information being broadcast about his condition.

That is not to say many people do not have trouble imagining a world without Yasser Arafat. There is a tangible sense of nervousness about what may now follow.

"Everyone's waiting to see what happens," said Rasha Muslih, another student at Bir Zeit. "We are uncertain who will take his place and we are worried how the Israelis will take advantage of the situation."

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