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