Palestians arrange funeral for Arafat at West Bank HQ

Details of the funeral of Yasser Arafat were being agreed by Palestinian officials yesterday as their leader clung to life in a French military hospital, after Israel gave permission for him to be buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Mr Arafat is expected to die within hours and, if he does, a state funeral, attended by Arab and other foreign leaders, will take place in Cairo tomorrow, it emerged last night. His body will then be flown to the West Bank and laid to rest in the Muqata compound where he had been under house arrest for the past two and a half years.

The leaders of Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil will attend Mr Arafat's funeral, an aide to the Palestinian Foreign Minister announced. Many other countries will also send representatives, but it remains unclear at which level, said Majdi Khaldi, an aide to Nabil Shaath.

Meanwhile the US President George Bush said he saw an opening for negotiating peace with a new Palestinian leadership, declaring: "I think we've got a chance."

Israel and the Palestinians reached a compromise between Israel's desire to see him buried in Gaza and his own wish to be buried in the Old City of Jerusalem. Bulldozers began clearingdebris left by the Israeli onslaught on the compound two years ago to make a space for Mr Arafat's last resting place under a clump of Aleppo pine trees in the precincts of the British-built fort. A few hundred Arafat supporters marched on the Muqata yesterday, chanting slogans such as "Arafat is the leader. Arafat is Palestine".

Egypt is a convenient location for Arab leaders who refuse to recognise the state of Israel or to travel to the occupied territories until a fully independent Palestinian state is formed. It also has the advantage of being Mr Arafat's birthplace, although he claimed he was born in Jerusalem where he spent much of his childhood.

Leila Shahid, the Palestine Liberation Organisation envoy in Paris, said Taisser Bayoud Tamimi, the cleric who heads the Islamic court for the West Bank and Gaza, had been praying for his recovery and reading the Koran at Mr Arafat's bedside in "the final phase of life". The cleric repeated that Islam outlawed any move to switch off Mr Arafat's life support and added: "It is absolutely rejected. As long as there are signs of life in the body of the President, he will remain under treatment."

His resting place of Muqata was occupied by the Israelis in Ramallah between 1967 and 1994, and after the formation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Mr Arafat moved between the Muqata and a similar compound in Gaza City. At the height of the conflict during the Palestinian uprising, Israeli forces laid siege to the compound three times. In the third attack, in September 2002,they cut off Mr Arafat in a corner where he continued to live until he was transported to Paris for treatment on 29 October. Israel did not ­ until his last journey ­ give permission for him to return if he left Ramallah.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, was said by an Israeli official to have told cabinet ministers that when Mr Arafat's dies, "we don't have to allow him to become a hero". Mr Sharon, who as defence minister ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to drive out Mr Arafat and the PLO, has frequently been quoted as saying he wished Mr Arafat had been killed at the time.

Palestinian officials confirmed yesterday that Rawhi Fattouh, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, would temporarily assume the office of President after Mr Arafat's death, though sharing his de facto powers with Ahmed Qureia, the Prime Minister, and his predecessor Abu Mazen, secretary general and acting chairman of the PLO.

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