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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 10:06 GMT
Grief and uncertainty in Ramallah

By Martin Asser
BBC News in Ramallah

A sombre mood descended on Ramallah when the news of Yasser Arafat's death finally came.

It had been expected for days, and Palestinians had been bracing themselves for the announcement from the military hospital in France.

Manara junction in central Ramallah
Soon after the news of Arafat's death, Palestinians gather in central Ramallah

So in a sense, it came as a relief; the old man's suffering had come to an end. But the big question in many Palestinian minds is "What happens now?"

"I'm not sad," said one young man catching a bus at the Manara junction in the centre of Ramallah.

"His time had come and it's now time to move on, time for new Palestinian leaders."

Unfortunately though, in the view of this Palestinian, his leaders had got off completely on the wrong foot.

"It is just the same old circle of decision-makers, making the same mistakes," he said.

"They should have taken a stand on the burial issue, insisting on his burial in Jerusalem, to show the Palestinians that they were striving to achieve our nationalist goals."

Blank expressions

Not everyone was so analytical though. Others were gathering at the Manara junction out of a genuine sense of grief.

YASSER ARAFAT: KEY DATES
Yasser Arafat
24 Aug 1929: Born in Cairo
1948: Founds Fatah
1969: Elected PLO chairman
1974: Addresses UN General Assembly
1982: Expelled from Lebanon by Israelis
1990: Supports Saddam Hussein during First Gulf War
1991: Marries Suha Tawil
1993: At the White House signs peace agreement with Israel
1994: Jointly awarded Nobel peace prize with Rabin and Peres
2001: Israel blockades him inside Ramallah headquarters

"This is so difficult, I feel so bad," said Najwa Hamdi, a young woman perched on the kerb clutching her handbag with tears welling up in her eyes.

"He was a father for every Palestinian - and a sign of freedom in the world."

Grief and uncertainty. Unlike Najwa's, most faces were blank. Their anxiety about a future without the veteran standard-bearer for their cause leaving people's faces with hollow, nervous expressions.

Several hundred people drifted to this usually traffic-clogged junction. Cars drove past respectfully, not threatening to mow down anyone in their path as usual.

A large, expensive-looking off-road vehicle with tinted windows, twin black flags and loudspeakers broadcasting funeral Koranic verses passes repeatedly through the crowd.

Another much less fancy vehicle also crawled along the streets. It had yellow, Israeli-issued number plates. Posters of Arafat decorated the closed windows and scruffy kids peered out of the open ones.

The driver was making sure any traders who had opened their stalls were now dutifully closing them again.

Unsold produce

The crowd thinned out in the streets that fan out from the Manara, and the heightened atmosphere was relieved.

In the nearby Hisbeh market, in fact, there were barely suppressed smiles among the traders standing around the steel gate that locked out potential customers.

One of them is posing, fingers making victory signs, through the bars, a sardonic joke recalling the defiance of Palestinians taken prisoner by the Israeli army.

Palestinian woman watching mourners at Manara junction
A Palestinian woman watches mourners at Manara junction

"[Mr Arafat] caused us problems when he was alive, and he's causing us problems now he's dead. We have goods to sell," said one of the traders, a religious-looking man with a grey beard, who did not want to give his name.

All around us, their wooden carts, groaning with fruit and vegetables, stood unattended with plastic sacks covering the piles of fresh produce.

"Every day a Palestinian citizen is killed by the Israeli army in Gaza or Jenin or Nablus... and they [Mr Arafat and his allies] don't do anything," says another man, not a market trader, but a garage owner from the suburbs who has come to stand and watch.

"Why should we be more sad about him than anyone else," he adds.

Down at the Kalandia checkpoint - where the Israeli army controls all access to nearby Jerusalem from Ramallah - was quieter than usual.

'Normal day'

The dusty chaos on the Ramallah side - with taxis, buses, pedestrians all jostling for space - was more subdued than usual.

Kalandia checkpoint
At the Kalandia checkpoint Israeli soldiers check the document of a young man trying to get to Hebron

As news of Mr Arafat sunk in, people were starting to think about the immediate implications. Would they be able to get from A to B - always a tricky prospect in the occupied West Bank - if Israel started imposing travel restrictions to prevent unrest?

In fact the soldiers were being more polite than usual, anxious perhaps not to provoke any awkward situation. There was no evidence of the usual casual brutality that they frequently dish out to recalcitrant Palestinians.

It could be the calm before the storm, though, if people are prevented from crossing for Mr Arafat's funeral. The Eid festival approaching on Saturday or Sunday could also trigger unrest.

The soldiers aren't allowed to talk to journalists, but it's usually possible to tease a few words out of them.

"So are you expecting any trouble today," I asked one young soldier, as he watched a colleague stop two lads from Hebron, who were apparently not allowed to enter Jerusalem from this checkpoint today, much to their disappointment.

"No." - "Just a normal day at the office?" - "Yes."

"And how are you feeling? Happy? Sad?"

"Happy."


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