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Amid Gunfire and Chaos, Palestinians Bury Arafat

Thousands Storm Leader's Ramallah Compound

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 13, 2004; Page A01

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov. 12 -- The helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat's body touched the ground Friday, and the Palestinian leader's impassioned mourners surged forward. By the thousands, they clambered over concrete walls, burst through police lines, trampled each other and flung themselves against the chopper's metal skin.

"He's here!" a man bellowed, his face contorted as he charged the helicopter.

In the middle of a sea of mourners, Palestinian security officers lift Yasser Arafat's coffin on top of a car in the presidential compound in Ramallah to transport it to the burial site. (Oleg Popov -- Reuters)

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Desperate and angry, Palestinian security forces fired wildly into the air. Black-masked gunmen answered with louder bursts. Momentarily panicked, people closest to the aircraft dived for the ground in a tangle of sweating bodies, intertwined limbs and lost shoes. Seconds later, they were back on their feet -- chanting, screaming, cursing, demanding Arafat's coffin.

The mayhem that greeted Arafat's remains on their return to this West Bank city forced apprehensive officials to cancel a planned funeral and hasten his burial. The Palestinian leader was quickly laid to rest inside the government compound that had been his prison and refuge for the last 2 1/2 years of his life.

Arafat died early Thursday in a military hospital outside Paris, where he had been taken Oct. 29 for treatment of what doctors said were apparently digestive and blood disorders. The precise cause of death has not been released.

The chaos here contrasted starkly with the formal pomp and pageantry of Arafat's military funeral, held Friday morning near Cairo and attended by Arab leaders and other foreign dignitaries. And while Palestinian officials initially were dismayed by the public display of disorder that was beamed around the world by television networks, they conceded it was an apt farewell to the 75-year-old Arafat, who considered himself a revolutionary and a rebel.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom had walked hours to evade Israeli military checkpoints, converged on Friday morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the coffin containing the remains of the only leader most of them had ever known. They climbed atop cars, shimmied up street lamps and packed in on rooftops for a peek over the high concrete walls of the rubble-strewn Palestinian presidential complex. Inside the compound, soldiers in pressed uniforms and a marching band practiced for the burial ceremony.

With the approach of the Egyptian helicopter carrying Arafat's body from an airfield in the Sinai Peninsula, where it had been flown by military cargo plane after the service in Cairo, hundreds of Palestinians began scaling the walls of the complex. Some were aided by the outstretched arms of Palestinian security guards atop the wall. About 30 minutes before the helicopter was scheduled to land, the undermanned security forces opened the main gates of the compound and thousands of people pushed and shoved inside.

With the helicopter pilots unable to land amid the sea of bodies, Palestinian police officers began firing into the air. People huddled against each other for cover, leaving room for the helicopter to set down at 2:18 p.m. in a burst of dust and debris. In an instant, the mob pressed forward and overpowered the security forces.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator and one of four Palestinian officials who flew aboard the helicopter with Arafat's body, pleaded with the mob to show respect. "Please honor him!" Erekat shouted from the door of the helicopter. "Give him the honor he deserves!"

"I was shocked and saddened because I wanted to give him a dignified burial with honors," Erekat said later. "I think the mistake was to allow people inside the compound. There were more guns in the hands of the people than in the hands of the police."

Yasib Khodir, 40, a merchant from the northern city of Nablus, was unrepentant. "This is our expression of sadness for a man we loved," Khodir said, shouting over bursts of gunfire as he was jostled by a masked militant. "He is now a part of history."

After about 20 minutes, jeeps and soldiers were able to make their way to the helicopter, remove Arafat's flag-draped coffin and rescue the passengers. But the crowd partially commandeered the casket as black-masked members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of Arafat's Fatah political movement, led chants of "To Jerusalem! To Jerusalem!" -- a reference to Arafat's wish to be buried in what he considered the Palestinians' capital. Israel had refused the request.

Alarmed by the continuing chaos, Palestinian officials quickly abandoned plans for a formal funeral ceremony with tributes, marching band and soldiers in formation. The red carpet intended for the event remained wadded on the tarmac.

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