RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct. 29 -- As Mohammed Rajoub watched a Jordanian military helicopter climb slowly into the air early Friday with the ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat aboard, he turned to hug his friends and cried.
"I can't believe my eyes," said Rajoub, 20, wearing a black-and-white checkered head scarf like the one Arafat typically wears, tears streaming down his face. "He left us. Who is going to take care of us? Who is going to listen to us?"
Palestinians wave at the helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat as he leaves his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah to seek medical care in Paris.
(Nasser Shiyoukhi -- AP)
"There's nobody like him, and nobody will replace him," said glassy-eyed Iyad Murar, 41, who had waited for six hours outside Arafat's dilapidated compound to watch his 7:20 a.m. departure. "He will never come back."
That sentiment was shared by many Palestinians here and across the region as the 75-year-old man considered the embodiment of his people's fight for an independent homeland left his barricaded headquarters for the first time in more than two years to seek medical treatment in Paris.
Some analysts said his departure would renew hope for reviving the peace process with the Israelis and reforming the Palestinians' political and security institutions. But others said a power vacuum could leave the peace process stalled and lead to clashes between Palestinian armed groups and political factions.
"If Arafat dies or is incapacitated, we're looking at what I would call a revolutionary situation, in the sense that all kinds of dynamics will be released," said Yossi Alpher, co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, a Web site for Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
Arafat's departure for France forced Palestinians to contemplate life without the one person who not only embodies their diverse interests -- he is a Nobel Peace laureate, president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and chief of the Fatah political movement -- but for decades has kept them from flying apart.
Arafat's charisma, popularity and international profile have given him power and influence on both sides of some of the Palestinians' deepest divides: with the 3.6 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 2.5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon; among the old guard cronies who joined him in exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, and the younger reformers who grew up in the territories; with the Islamic groups that want to turn the fight against Israel into a holy war, and the secular organizations that want to keep it a struggle of national liberation.
"The importance of Arafat is not in his title as president," said Henry Siegman, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "His importance is derived by his image as the incarnation of the national identity and struggle. Once he's gone, there's no one to replace him. No one can claim to inherit that mantle."
But at the same time, Arafat has made enemies not only abroad but at home over his style and tactics, the corruption that has festered around him, his spurning of democratic reforms and the lack of progress in the Palestinian drive for statehood. Supporters of the peace process, in particular, have been angered by Arafat's refusal to prevent suicide bombers of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of his Fatah movement, from killing Israeli civilians.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, a chief rival of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, said Friday that it was setting aside its differences with Arafat and called for a united Palestinian leadership to work toward elections. In an interview on al-Jazeera television, Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, wished Arafat well and added, "We wish that the siege against the entire Palestinian people and President Arafat was broken."
Arafat has refused to groom an heir and has not permitted a new generation of leaders to flourish under his command. As a result, several of the most popular Palestinians have developed their own followings in different factions and geographic areas, creating the potential for bitter power struggles, analysts say.
Hillel Frisch, a political scientist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies outside Tel Aviv, predicted "a tremendous crisis in the Palestinian political center," with several politicians and security officials amassing support and influence. These include Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief of Gaza; Brig. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's national security adviser; and Marwan Barghouti, a West Bank leader jailed by Israel on terrorism charges.
"They feel it's their time for the job, and they're not going to allow the oldies to run the show," Frisch said.