Palestinians Honor Arafat Year After Death

The Associated Press
Friday, November 11, 2005; 2:36 PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat was remembered Friday on the first anniversary of his death, with successor Mahmoud Abbas laying the cornerstone for an elaborate shrine to the iconic Palestinian leader in the yard of Arafat's former headquarters.

However, many Palestinians today feel ambivalent about the man who once dominated their lives: while legend around him lives on, he is no longer part of the Palestinian national discourse.

Arafat died in a military hospital outside Paris on Nov. 11, 2004, two weeks after being flown from his bullet-scarred Ramallah base, where he had been cooped up for three years under Israeli siege. The cause of death remains unknown.

A year ago, Arafat was buried at his Ramallah compound in a chaotic and anguished funeral that drew tens of thousands of mourners. On Friday, only about 2,000 people turned out to pay their respects at his glass-enclosed tomb.

Abbas laid the cornerstone for a new Arafat memorial, even as he acknowledged his predecessor had no wish for a grandiose building.

"He had no dreams of having a palace in Palestine but only to have a grave in Jerusalem," Abbas said. "God willing, he will be buried in Jerusalem."

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and want Arafat reburied there.

The Ramallah memorial is to be built around Arafat's tomb and will include a three-story Arafat museum featuring his personal belongings, including his trademark military fatigues, pistol and headscarves, which he would arrange to resemble a map of Palestine.

A walkway is to connect the museum to the presidential headquarters, known as the Muqata.

While often invoking Arafat's legacy, Abbas has chosen a more moderate path, denouncing violence as counterproductive to achieving Palestinian statehood. In a symbol of that break, Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, plans to build a new presidential compound away from the headquarters that Arafat inhabited.

"Abu Mazen is building his own political system," political scientist Ali Jarbawi said. "He praises Arafat, but he is going ahead with his own program and his own way, seeking his own legitimacy."

At the same time, the Arafat myth is growing.

He is held up as an example of resistance who refused to crack under Israeli pressure, and as the man who thrust the Palestinian quest for statehood onto the international stage.

"Arafat led the Palestinian people for 40 years, and he has earned a place in history as the father of the Palestinian nation," said Palestinian Housing Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh. "Like de Gaulle, Churchill, Kennedy and Castro, he is one of the few world leaders who people know and whose name and image they recognize."

Israel stopped regarding Arafat as a partner after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late 2000 and a second Palestinian uprising erupted. President Bush also shunned him.

Arafat's nephew, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa, rejected Israeli and U.S. claims that Arafat was an impediment to peace. His uncle, he said, refused offers of a truncated state.

"Arafat wasn't an obstacle for the peace process," Al-Kidwa told The Associated Press. "He was an obstacle to plans that were unacceptable to the Palestinians."

Although a year has passed since Arafat died, there is still no clear-cut explanation of what killed him. The Percy Military Hospital that treated him has not clarified matters, and its medical records on Arafat, recently leaked to reporters, have proven inconclusive.

Rumors persist that Arafat died of AIDS or was poisoned by Israel, a charge Israel denies.

Al-Kidwa said he is convinced his uncle did not die of natural causes, and that Israel killed him. But he acknowledged he did not have tangible evidence and said his impression did not reflect an official position.

Elsewhere in the West Bank on Friday, 300 masked men, some carrying assault rifles and other weapons, marched in tribute to Arafat through the village of Dura near Hebron, waving Arafat posters and Palestinian flags.

© 2005 The Associated Press