RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov. 11 -- Elementary school teacher Mohammad Mustafa watched chanting teenagers carrying posters of Yasser Arafat through the streets of this city Thursday and decided immediately how he would present the deceased leader's legacy to the next generation of Palestinians.
"I will tell them he was not a god," said Mustafa, 38, a dark stubble on his face and a 3-year-old daughter on his knee, "but a person who struggled and sacrificed. Arafat was a fighter, Arafat was popular among the Palestinian people, but he made mistakes."
Palestinians in Ramallah pay respects to Yasser Arafat with pictures of the late leader. Others draped their homes with black flags.
(Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
As Palestinians prepared to bury the man who for nearly 40 years personified their elusive dream of a homeland, many displayed conflicting emotions over a leader they loved and revered for what he represented, but faulted for the failures he bequeathed them.
"Though I disagreed with many of his actions, Arafat is a symbol," said Khalid Issa, 42, a butcher with a trim goatee and mustache, as he leaned against a car in Ramallah's town square, reading a newspaper. "When we heard about his death, it was like hearing about the loss of a member of the family, maybe even worse. Regardless of political loyalties or factions, everybody had a warm place in his heart for Abu Ammar."
Abu Ammar is the informal name many Palestinians used to refer to Arafat, a reflection of the attachment he had forged with his people.
In cities, villages and refugee camps across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians awoke Thursday to hear mosque loudspeakers or television broadcasts announcing Arafat's death at a French military hospital outside Paris at the age of 75. Throughout a dreary autumn day of leaden skies, they joined impromptu street demonstrations or milled around in their neighborhoods.
Several hundred people, including armed radicals, swarmed into the streets in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. But most residents stayed in their homes, commiserating with family and friends behind the black flags that draped the windows and facades of hundreds of homes and apartments.
Israeli military forces closed most checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza, prohibiting most Palestinians outside Ramallah from attending Arafat's burial on Friday. Thousands of residents in the northern West Bank city of Jenin staged a symbolic funeral Thursday, carrying a coffin draped in the Palestinian flag through the streets before burying it. The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, urged Gaza residents to join a symbolic funeral the radical group is planning in Gaza City after noon prayers on Friday.
At Manara Square in Ramallah, the West Bank city where Arafat had been virtually imprisoned in his office compound for 2 1/2 years before his recent illness, groups of young men marched, shouted slogans and waved palm fronds and olive branches bearing pictures of Arafat.
Members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the radical wing of Arafat's Fatah political movement, loped through the streets, their faces covered by homemade black masks. Some of them fired pistols into the air. A green truck from the Palestinian National Guard patrolled slowly behind them.
On what would normally be one of the busiest shopping days of the year, as the gift-giving end of the holy month of Ramadan approaches, shops were shuttered for the official mourning period, their metal doors plastered with images of Arafat's grizzled face.
"Even if we didn't always agree with our president, we want to show we're standing today in one front with him," said Amar Jamah, 19, a college student helping set fire to stacks of tires arrayed along a street leading into town.
For many Palestinians, Arafat's reign left behind many sources of grievance: corruption, a crippled economy, armed conflict with Israel, the anger of much of the world over suicide bombings.
"We're in big trouble," said Jalal Matari, 22, a pharmacist in Ramallah. "Israel does what it wants. We're living in a big prison. We need peace."
"We hope the new leadership will bring about change in all different areas of life," said Mustafa, the schoolteacher. "A change in the old faces, a change in the economy, social changes so we can live a more civilized lifestyle. Isn't this our right to have our dreams for a better life?"
A few minutes later, the emotion of the day returned as Mustafa recalled hearing the news that morning. "I was very saddened," he said. "And that sadness is genuine."
"In the morning we say Arafat is the charming, elected national symbol," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "In the evening we say he was weak, he was corrupted, he corrupted people. You hug him, and you criticize him. This is the contradiction everybody lives with."
In contrast, few Israelis interviewed Thursday said they felt conflicted over Arafat's death.
"Nothing will change," said Dudi Cohen, 30, wearing a knitted yarmulke and sitting on a bench in a Jerusalem mall. "I don't understand why people are making such a fuss about the day after Arafat dies. He was a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. He was a huge terrorist."
"There are two possibilities," argued Solly Zina, a 44-year-old father of two. "Either a step toward peace or an even worse mess than we already have. There will certainly be change. But change for the bad or change for the good? Right now that is in the hands of the Palestinians. We are merely watching, biting our nails, for them to make the correct decisions."
Researcher Hillary Claussen in Jerusalem contributed to this report.