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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 17:20 GMT
Preparing Arafat's resting place

By Martin Asser
BBC News in Ramallah

The workmen started clearing the ground where Yasser Arafat's body is to be buried the day before his death was announced.

Vehicles clear earth as they dig Arafat's grave in the Muqata, Ramallah
A cluster of trees will shade Arafat's grave in the Muqata

It was necessary to clear an area covered by squashed and tangled vehicles left at his Muqata compound during previous Israeli incursions.

But it was not until his people learned that he had died - first thing on Thursday morning in a hospital in France - that the job of digging his grave began.

Diggers, bulldozers and lorries worked in the shade of six trees standing incongruously in the middle of the large open stretch of tarmac in the south-east corner of the Muqata.

They dug a hole about two metres deep, five metres long and two metres wide, carting off the earth to another corner of the Muqata, where the other debris had already been piled up.

Cement, sand and bricks were stacked up by the graveside, as electricians rigged floodlights along a nearby wall and erected a solitary street light near the burial place.

Bird's eye view

The cheerless task was undertaken in full view of the big international media outlets, which have taken up positions on several tall buildings overlooking this corner of the Muqata.

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

From here we could not only see all of the compound, but also half of Ramallah - with its square sand-coloured buildings and black plumes of smoke from burning tyres - to the hills of the West Bank beyond, some of them crested by Israeli settlements.

For people outside the compound though - mainly Palestinians who have come to mourn the passing of their leader of nearly half a century - the work was hidden behind high concrete walls, which was perhaps more fitting compared with our hungry see-everything attitude.

The numbers of mourners have not been huge, but they have been bolstered by the occasional organised demonstration of Fatah youths numbering a few hundred.

They waved banners and palm fronds with Arafat's poster attached to them, punching the air and shouting: "Yasser was the people, the people will not die" and called for revenge on Israel for "poisoning" their leader.

Left hanging around

Other people were milling around too: a knot of peasant women in embroidered toab garments, singing traditional funeral laments for Mr Arafat; another group of women, puffy-eyed but smart, in black western clothes, trimmed dramatically with the black-and-white ghutra headscarf made famous by Mr Arafat himself.

Palestinian boys climb up a fence to see Mr Arafat's grave, Ramallah
We are always the last to know, Palestinians say

One young black-clad woman complained that she had come along expecting some kind of opportunity to pay her respects properly.

She asked me if I knew anything about the funeral arrangements, of which I was able to tell her vague details.

"It's typical that we, the Palestinians, are the last to find out about anything. We're left to hang around outside in this street when what we really need is support from our leaders at a time of grief."

Suddenly about 10 gun-toting militiamen in black balaclava helmets marched up the street, sparking a frenzy of activity from the assembled TV cameramen and press photographers.

Their leader mounted one of the wooden platforms built by an Arabic TV station, gave a quick interview, before they marched back down the streets, cameramen in tow.

Sand burial

Back at the BBC vantage point, I could see that the workmen had now built the beginnings of a wall around their hole.

In my absence, I was told, a concrete sarcophagus had been lowered in, ready to receive the leader's body tomorrow.

Grieving Palestinian women, Ramallah
Women wore Mr Arafat's famous black-and-white ghrutra headscarf

It was still not clear if it was going to be just an exterior wall around the tomb, or a roofed structure.

It would have to be something simple probably, because there was only 24 hours to go before the burial.

Apparently Mr Arafat's casket is to be encased in sand - so he can be reburied in Jerusalem at some time in the future, which Israel will not allow at the moment.

It reminded me of the millions of Palestinian refugees living in this region, many of whom live in wretched conditions, waiting to be allowed to return to homes in what is now Israel.

Final years

A former Palestinian minister was waiting for his turn on camera and I engaged him in conversation as we watched from on high.

He explained that the burial location was where Mr Arafat had had a prayer hall - demolished by Israeli forces some time ago - where he and his cabinet also used to receive visitors.

A little to the right was the building where Mr Arafat spent his final years, before being rushed to Paris for the last short episode of a life spent mostly in exile.

The minister pointed out three tall buildings nearby from where Israeli snipers had ensured that Mr Arafat never left his meagre quarters for the last two-and-a-half years.

Before today dozens of crude anti-helicopter devices - blue barrels filled with concrete holding upright 3-metre-long metal tubes - had been scattered throughout the area to prevent an Israeli snatch-squad from grabbing Mr Arafat and taking him off to Gaza or to exile.

In the end, it was a medical emergency that achieved what the Israelis had threatened to do.

The barrels have now been lined up in two rows to make a rather sorry ceremonial walkway leading to another Muqata building, the conference hall where Arafat's body will be taken after its arrival from Egypt tomorrow.

Read Martin Asser's previous entries from Ramallah:

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