Arafat’s Demise – an (Almost) Never-Ending Story
Wednesday night, November 10, Yasser Arafat’s grotesquely protracted demise had just about reached breaking point when two things happened.
The Fatah-Tanzim stirred up anti-Israeli riots in Jerusalem and West Bank under the slogan: “Arafat’s heritage is the gun” and “the Jews Poisoned Mohammed, they killed Arafat.”
Then followed an announcement by Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath: Arafat’s brain is functioning only partially. All his organs but for his heart and lungs have failed.
These events capped a day which saw another twist in the drawn-out cliffhanger of Yasser Arafat’s demise which started 13 days ago. The senior Palestinian Muslim cleric Sheikh Taissir Tamimi who was dispatched to the Percy hospital in Paris to perform the last rites, took one look at Arafat in his hospital bed, and came out to tell the world media that he was alive. Shutting down life support system to which the Palestinian leader had been connected for 12 days is absolutely forbidden by Islam, he declared, and promised to stay by his side and pray for his recovery.
Adding to the disarray, Palestinian Paris envoy Leila Shahid announced Arafat was in the final stage of his life.
As they spoke, bulldozers in Ramallah began digging a grave; Palestinian leaders cobbled together a holding framework composed of a troika to bridge the transition from Arafat’s one-man authoritarian style of government to an uncertain future. The Palestinian Authority also sent out invitations for the Friday, November 12 funeral, starting with a state ceremony for Arab dignitaries in Cairo and ending with the interment at Arafat’s old offices in Ramallah where ground was being cleared for a grand mausoleum. Guests were already reported setting out for the funeral, including personages invited by Arafat’s widow-to-be Suha.
An Israeli special cabinet session approved the Palestinian request to lay their leader to rest in Ramallah on Friday. They were told Gaza would have been preferable and they would be responsible for security at the funeral. Israeli forces would block access to the town from other parts of the West Bank. The cabinet also barred the passage of masses of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Ramallah across Israeli territory. Israeli security forces maintained the mass movement would pose an uncontrollable security threat; it would moreover provide cover for the restoration of terrorist networks in areas adjoining Israel, which Israeli military and security forces have been at pains to break up in recent years.
Israel forces are bracing for trouble from inflamed mobs before, during and after the funeral.
The Egyptians, too, were wary about permitting a mass-attendance ceremony to see Arafat off at Arab League headquarters in the center of Cairo. An Egyptian plane is standing by in Paris to collect the coffin but they may restrict the occasion to a modest sendoff at Cairo airport before the bier is flown out to Ramallah.
All the arrangements went forward Wednesday at a brisk pace – funeral invitations, procession route, burial ceremony, tomb, new leadership. The only thing missing as the tense hours ticked by in Ramallah was the death announcement and a body.
The suspense proved too much for the students of neighboring Bir Zeit University. They formed into ragged lines and marched to the burial site shouting support for Arafat, without being exactly sure what or whom they were protesting or backing.
Until Tuesday, Mrs. Arafat was the obstacle to her husband’s demise. Then, two senior Palestinian officials, Ahmed Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, negotiated an outrageously exorbitant settlement for her future in return for her permission to disconnect the machines. Wednesday, the white-turbaned Palestinian sheikh turned the wheel back to the starting point.
The uncertainties surrounding the life/death/funeral of Yasser Arafat also infused the leadership deliberations in Ramallah on Wednesday where a decision was taken to provisionally split Arafat’s powers three ways: Legislature Speaker Fathi Rouh was designated acting chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Ala stayed on as prime minister and Abu Mazen, as senior executive officer of the PLO. They promise an election in 60 days. But their opponents and the radicalized Palestinian people are unlikely to grant them this grace period.