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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November, 2004, 11:53 GMT
Burial amid Ramallah's rubble

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Ramallah

The stage is set for a dramatic occasion in the West Bank town of Ramallah - the laying to rest of Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians hold pictures of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah
Palestinians have come to Arafat's compound to pay their respects
Workmen have toiled through the night to build a dignified tomb for the Palestinian leader in an area that 48 hours earlier was a wasteland of rubble and twisted metal.

The roar of bulldozers and the shrill "beep, beep, beep" of their warning signals mingled with the mournful sound of funerary verses from the Koran floating over Mr Arafat's Muqata compound throughout Thursday.

The day had dawned with the news that Palestinians had been expecting for days, that their leader since 1968 had died of a mystery illness in a military hospital in Paris.

Today, everything was made ready for Mr Arafat's funeral in Cairo - where his body was flown overnight - and for his burial in Ramallah.

Most Arab leaders in Cairo were from countries that do not recognise Israel and refuse to set foot in the Arab territories it occupies in the West Bank or Gaza.

Israel for its part has refused to honour Mr Arafat's long-held wish to be buried in Jerusalem.

How many mourners?

If the Cairo ceremony has a sombre predictability, the burial in Ramallah entails almost as much uncertainty as the days of waiting for Mr Arafat's life to ebb away.

His body is expected to arrive at the Muqata by helicopter at about 1330 local time (1130 GMT).

Images of the site of Yasser Arafat's tomb being prepared
Arafat's marble tomb has been built from scratch in less than 24 hours
The casket will be taken to lie in state at the compound's grandest building, the conference hall, where ordinary people can file past, before burial in the tomb 100m away before sunset.

But that may leave only about three hours for the general public to pay their respects to a man who - for all his faults and failings - is acknowledged to be the father of their struggle for independence.

Palestinian officials say they had asked Egypt to keep the body until Saturday to avoid any crush - but Egypt, for its own reasons, refused.

Maybe the large numbers will not come.

The Israeli army has barred the access for the population of Gaza and Palestinians from other areas from attending the burial, potentially a provocative move in itself, and it has sealed off other West Bank towns.

But West Bankers have learnt during the four years of the intifada how to get round such measures, so they can lead their lives.

However, if they do come in large numbers, the ill-equipped, ill-prepared Palestinian security forces may well have their hands full, if emotions run out of control.

Back in the spotlight

For all its poignancy, this is probably a day that Mr Arafat would have relished.

An honour guard is drilled for Yasser Arafat's return to Ramallah
An honour guard has been practising its final salute to Arafat
Back on the world stage again for a major international event after years being pinned down by Israeli forces in two rooms at the Muqata, just a stone's throw from his burial site today.

The rubble and debris that were left there to protect him from the threat of abduction by the Israelis have been cleared away to create a truly impressive platform for his burial to take place.

The dozens of makeshift helicopter traps (concrete-filled oil drums holding upright metal tubes), meant to ward off Israeli snatch-squads, are now all flying the potent symbol of the Palestinian flag.

And the black marble tomb is ready in time - a temporary structure, it is said, so that his bones can one day be taken to Jerusalem, when - if - his people's aspirations to have their capital in the eastern half of the city are fulfilled.

Mr Arafat would have watched carefully to see the reaction of the people. His successors will have to, because emotions are very unpredictable at this time.

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