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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 October, 2004, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Beginning of the end of an era
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Arafat supporters in Ramallah (archive photo)
Palestinians recognise Arafat has given everything to their cause
Lively, noisy and scruffy, Palestine Square is the heart of Gaza City and as good a place as any to tap into the mood on the streets.

And among the square's traders, shoppers and taxi drivers there is a real sense that, with Yasser Arafat gravely ill, the Palestinian people are passing through a critical period.

Most people speak of the leader with genuine respect.

"President Arafat is our symbol - the symbol of our struggle," said Nasser Sakkalla, who has Mr Arafat's picture on the wall in his pharmacy.

"This has been a real shock. We call on God in this holy month of Ramadan to help him recover."

Outside, three old men talked in much the same way as they sat watching taxis nudging through the crowds of shoppers who had spilled onto the street.

One of the men said that he had seen Mr Arafat work all his life for Palestine.

Many people acknowledge that he picked up their cause when it seemed lost in the late 1950s.

They regard him as having given everything to the revolution that eventually focused the world's attention on their troubles.

Nearby, a shopkeeper said that he had opposed Mr Arafat politically, and that he had spent six years in a Palestinian jail as a result.

But, he said that even he respected Mr Arafat as a true national figure.

Harsh opinions

However, there are certainly harder strains of opinion too.

There is widespread contempt for the Palestinian Authority, Mr Arafat's administration in the West Bank and Gaza. It is generally regarded as being deeply corrupt and inefficient.

Crowds of supporters wave off Yasser Arafat from Ramallah to Paris for medical treatment

A man called Hassan, sitting under a tree chatting to a friend in Palestine Square, said: "Arafat destroyed the country - he burned it. A few people close to him at the top benefit, but the rest of us don't."

Hassan is unemployed and struggling to support a large family. Many in Gaza are in a similar position.

As Hassan spoke, loudspeakers on a truck in the middle of the square boomed out an appeal for funds for a charity that works with the very poor.

Around 70% of people in Gaza live below the World Bank's poverty line.

Mr Arafat is now receiving some of the world's best medical care. He may survive, and continue to lead for some time to come.

New leadership

But there is a sense here that whatever happens, this affair will have marked the beginning of the end of his era.

As one observer put it: "Even the kids in the street know now that Arafat is going. People are thinking about what happens afterwards."

There is concern that the transition to a new leadership may not be smooth.

People are well aware that Mr Arafat has never designated a clear successor.

And in Gaza, they know how intense the rivalries can be among those from whom a new leader must emerge.

About a fortnight ago, just up the road from Palestine Square on Gaza City's main street, one unit of Mr Arafat's security forces ambushed another.

Six people were wounded in the gun battle that followed.

But a number of people in the square said that they were not worried.

They said that a descent into chaos is what the Israelis would like to see.

They were confident that the Palestinians would make sure that that did not happen.


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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES:
Herald Tribune Aides Say Arafat Does Not Have Leukemia - 9 hrs ago
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