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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 21:36 GMT
Gaza mourns symbol of struggle
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

The rituals of mourning gradually unfolded through the day.

A Palestinian security man shooting in the air at Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip after learning of Yasser Arafat's death
Shots were fired as a final tribute to Yasser Arafat
Soon after word came that Yasser Arafat had died, loudspeakers began broadcasting readings from the Koran.

Shops, schools and offices stayed closed. Black flags were hung out, and posters of Yasser Arafat were plastered on walls.

Hundreds of car tyres were set ablaze. Soon there was a thick black pall of smoke hanging low over the apartment blocks and minarets. It captured the mood of Gaza City in those first hours.

People were not shocked by Yasser Arafat's death. He had been desperately ill for two weeks.

In Gaza, they knew the end was coming. But the reaction to the news from Paris did trigger genuine and very widespread sadness.

"He was our leader," said one man. "And we're all sad because he was a fighter. We ask God to bless him, and we hope - with God's help - our victory will come."

There was a sense that ordinary people felt he had embodied their whole cause.

In those first minutes when the news came through, one man said, "I feel like a son who's lost his father, and his dreams. President Arafat was not just a leader, he was a symbol for our struggle and our freedom. He was there when we were born."

March of tribute

It was not until the evening that the first organised act of mourning took place.

Thousands of Mr Arafat's supporters gathered in the central square. As speakers heaped praise on him, armed men fired into the air in a last tribute.

Palestinian security guard lowers the Palestinian flag to half-mast at Yasser Arafat's former headquarters in Gaza City
Mourning ceremonies will be held outside Arafat's old ruined offices
Later, they marched to the offices that Mr Arafat occupied before they were destroyed by the Israeli air force in the spring of 2002.

And it is there, in front of a wrecked helicopter hangar, that the official mourning ceremonies will be held.

A huge tent has been erected, and many hundreds of Gaza's dignitaries will gather beneath it. They will be able to follow Mr Arafat's burial in Ramallah on a large screen.

As that last act of the Arafat era is performed, many Palestinians will be concerned by the uncertainties ahead.

A man on the streets of the city centre reflected some of those worries. "I hope that with Yasser Arafat gone, the Palestinian people - with all their different factions - will now unite and follow the same path and faith of Yasser Arafat."

Colossal figure

For now at least, there is talk across the political spectrum of the importance of pulling together.

The Islamic militant organisations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, had deep differences with Yasser Arafat for many years.

But in the hours after his death, even they talked of their sadness at this passing. They recognised him as a colossal figure in the Palestinian story.

Certainly in life, Yasser Arafat had many critics among ordinary Palestinians. The government he headed is widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient.

Even as he lay very ill in hospital in Paris, you would find a minority of people who spoke of their deep disillusionment with the leader's performance since he returned to run the Palestinian territories.

But on the day of his death at least, nobody talked badly of Yasser Arafat on the streets of Gaza.




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