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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November, 2004, 17:27 GMT
A people's burial for Arafat

By Martin Asser
BBC News website, Ramallah

Crowds surge in the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah.
Mourners poured into the compound hours before the event began
Thousands upon thousands of Palestinians converged on the Muqata compound in Ramallah in the hours ahead of Yasser Arafat's burial.

It was mainly the inhabitants of Ramallah, as the Israeli army had closed off other towns in the West Bank and prevented people travelling from the Gaza Strip.

The roads around the compound were jammed with mourners, who soon found a breach in the rough concrete walls on the west side allowing people to flow in like water.

It had been planned as a dignified ceremony - I had watched earlier as red carpets were prepared, and an honour guard and marching band were put through their paces on the newly-cleared expanse at the south-east portion of the compound.

But as the time approached when the helicopters were due to arrive, the fresh painted helipads were almost flooded by the whistling, chanting and shouting multitude.

In the few tall buildings surrounding the Muqata - until now mainly occupied by the international media - hoards of uninvited guests forced their way up to camera positions commanding the best views of the proceedings.

Dramatic arrival

The tension grew as news came that the helicopters had taken off from Egypt on their way to Ramallah. World leaders had attended a military funeral for Mr Arafat in Cairo, who died in a French hospital.

People squinted to the east for the first sign of aircraft. Suddenly a roar rose up from the crowds.

They whistled and waved and gesticulated, as four large military helicopters came into view in the clear blue sky.

Two helicopters - an Israeli Air Force escort, to prevent any attempt to fly the leader to his chosen burial place in Jerusalem, people said - peeled off and the other two turned south to prepare for their final approach to this scene of rising hysteria.

A minute or two later the large olive-green Egyptian aircraft were upon us.

Helicopter over Ramallah
The helicopters came in low over the Muqata
With an earth-shaking clatter, they flew low over the roof I was standing on and even lower over the three-storey building between us and the compound.

People clung on to anything within reach to prevent themselves being blown off the roof as a thick cloud of dust engulfed them.

The two pilots unflinchingly took the helicopters down into the spaces cleared of people for them in the Muqata compound, which from my vantage point looked almost impossibly small.

Volleys of gunfire rang out as a members of the security forces and gunmen in the surrounding streets greeted the return of the dead Palestinian leader in their own way.

The helicopters' rotor blades stopped quickly and the huge crowds surged forward to the foot of the aircraft.

People's ceremony

Then came the real tumult of this hot afternoon.

It took an age for the flag-draped coffin to emerge, but when it did, from the right-hand helicopter, it quickly started moving this way and that, pushed inexorably by the huge crowd.

It soon disappeared completely from view, swamped by frantic security men in green uniforms and civilians with black and white chequered scarves.

Sometimes the police had to fire over the heads of the crowd to make space, a seemingly lethal measure in this crowded environment.

A Palestinian mother and baby at Yasser Arafat's burial.
Some households were determined to celebrate Arafat's life amid the mourning
But the truth is that Palestinian people had taken over this "ceremony" - whose organisers had planned a dignified lying-in-state, prayers over the coffin and a burial before sunset.

In the event, the crowds deposited their dead leader at the prepared burial place after only a brief presentation at the Muqata conference chamber where the VIP guests had assembled.

When it was all over, exhausted security men and mourners sat with their heads in their hands, some of them still weeping with emotion.

Ambulances ferried people injured or overwhelmed in the crush from the scene.

Some people expressed anger and frustration - ironic but strangely logical - that they, the crowd, had been allowed to run amok by the hopelessly-outnumbered security forces, preventing a proper farewell for Mr Arafat.

An hour and a half after they had arrived, the helicopters took off again.

Gunshots still rang out sporadically as people drifted away.

Arafat's final triumph?

What would Yasser Arafat have thought about this day, were he alive to see it, instead of being shaken about in that wooden box by a straining, sweating crowd of his compatriots?

He surely would have relished the fact that the leaders and representatives of 40 countries had turned out for him in Cairo.

A Palestinian honour guard waits for Yasser Arafat's coffin to arrive.
Organisers had planned a more traditional send-off including a guard of honour
But he would have been positively ecstatic at the welcome in Ramallah.

Here he had been pinned down by Israel, which blamed him for being behind the wave of suicide bombings that has shaken its citizens in the last four years.

Here he had been hemmed in by Israel's snipers, battered by its tanks and bulldozers, humiliated by its politicians and their international allies.

But in death, he returned to his people as a hero.

He would also have pointed out - correctly - that this would have been an even bigger, even more chaotic occasion if Israel had not blocked the thousands, millions, of Palestinians from attending from the rest of the West Bank, from the Gaza Strip, and from four neighbouring Arab countries where the refugees live.


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