Grief-stricken crowds turn out across Middle East

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The crowd scene witnessed when the helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat's body arrived for his West Bank burial was repeated throughout the Middle East and beyond yesterday as tens of thousands staged their own makeshift commemorations to the Palestinian leader.

The crowd scene witnessed when the helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat's body arrived for his West Bank burial was repeated throughout the Middle East and beyond yesterday as tens of thousands staged their own makeshift commemorations to the Palestinian leader.

Barred from crossing Israel, an estimated 150,000 Palestinians in Gaza crowded the central Omari mosque for memorial prayers. A massive crowd, many holding pictures of Arafat, Palestinian flags and symbolic coffins, crammed the square mile area outside as security forces loyal to Arafat's Fatah movement fired automatic rifles in the air.

Later, an honorary motorcade, including Arafat's Mercedes limousine with his trademark headdress and a photograph of him in a gold frame placed on his empty seat, led the crowd back to the seaside PLO headquarters. Officers protected the vehicle as if he were still alive inside.

In Lebanon and Syria, Palestinian mourners held their own symbolic funerals. Thousands of refugees in Lebanese and Syrian camps waved Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat as they marched behind flag-draped coffins.

"Abu Ammar is an unprecedented symbolic leader," said Khaled Abu Madhi, a 26-year-old Palestinian refugee in Syria's al-Yarmouk refugee camp.

Ordinary Egyptians bade their own frustrated farewell to Arafat yesterday after being shut out of the official funeral due to what they claim was the fear among Arab rulers of an outpouring of popular feeling. Hundreds gathered at al-Azhar mosque in central Cairo shortly after kings, presidents and dignitaries from more than 50 countries attended a military ceremony six miles away.

In Tehran, tens of thousands of Iranians ­ some dressed as suicide bombers ­ flooded the streets, burning US and Israeli flags to mark the annual anti-Israel day and mourn the passing of the PLO leader. Marchers chanted "Death to America, death to Israel" at the state-sponsored rallyattended by most of Iran's administration, including President Mohammad Khatami. "Because they couldn't control Arafat, they [Israel] poisoned him to death," Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a senior adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the crowd.

In Bahrain, tens of thousands marched in the capital, Manama, in a similar demonstration called by Shia clerics in the Gulf state.

The grief was keenly felt in the Beirut district where he held out against a full-scale Israeli assault in 1982. In the neighbourhood of Fakhani Arafat is remembered as the guerrilla commander who dodged assassins, plotted operations and fought invaders with panache.

"We stayed up all night with him once," a resident who identified himself only as Zein said. "Arafat was calm, strong and smiling and kept repeating: 'What is pre-ordained for us will certainly happen to us.' "

Arafat operated for years from several offices and safe houses in Fakhani, a Muslim neighbourhood, since he moved his guerrilla base to Lebanon in 1970 after fleeing a war between Palestinian guerrillas and the Jordanian army.

Residents remember him with great respect, despite the destruction and danger that his presence brought.

He was also mentioned in a special prayer or janaza on the busiest day of the week at mosques throughout the UK, according to the Muslim Council for Great Britain. Forty thousand Muslims are expected to attend services at Regent's Park mosque in London today. "Prayers are expected to be said for the Palestinian people and the difficulties they are facing," a press officer for the council told The Independent.

Messages of support flooded into the Palestinian Authority from all corners of the world from Cuba to The Hague, where the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic took time out from his trial to send his condolences.

¿ Although Israeli television stations broadcast continuous coverage of Yasser Arafat's funeral and burial yesterday, many Israelis were unmoved by the event. Israeli officials were conspicuously absent from the ranks of foreign dignitaries who attended Arafat's funeral in Cairo, and only a handful of left-wing Israeli activists were present for the burial at his Ramallah headquarters.

"The grief of the Palestinian people isn't ours," Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister, told Israel Radio on Thursday. "We cannot grieve for one who ... murdered those among us."

Comments