As Yasser Arafat's body was flown from Paris to Cairo on Thursday for a memorial service that will precede burial in the West Bank later Friday, the Palestinian leader's powers and responsibilities were transferred to four new leaders. The handover marked what many here and around the world are anticipating as a new era for Palestinian governance and a chance to restart peace talks with Israel.
Arafat, the embodiment of the Palestinians' fight for an independent state, died about 3:30 a.m. at a French military hospital outside Paris, where he had been admitted nearly two weeks earlier with what doctors described as digestive and blood disorders. The 75-year-old leader slipped into a coma a week ago and suffered a brain hemorrhage and organ failure this week.
On Thursday afternoon, his flag-draped wood coffin was carried by eight French military pallbearers to a French government plane during a brief ceremony at Villacoublay Military Airfield, southwest of Paris, as Arafat's wife, Suha, dressed in a black overcoat, looked on.
Arafat's body was flown to Cairo for a military funeral that is expected to be attended by many Arab heads of state and other dignitaries. His body will then be returned to the West Bank city of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, for burial at about 4 p.m. Friday in the battered headquarters compound where Arafat spent the last years of his life, frequently under Israeli siege.
Arafat wanted to be buried in Jerusalem -- which both Palestinians and Israelis consider their capital -- at the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, but the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, rejected the idea. Instead, Palestinian officials said, part of Arafat's grave in Ramallah will be filled with dirt from the mosque, and he will be interred in a concrete casket so that his remains can someday be moved to al-Aqsa.
Sharon, Arafat's longtime nemesis, called his death "a turning point in Middle Eastern history" and expressed hope that "the new Palestinian leadership that will arise will understand that progress in relations and in the resolution of problems depends -- first and foremost -- on the cessation of terrorism and their fighting terrorism."
However, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, the militant group that rejected the 1993 Oslo peace accords and branded Arafat a traitor for signing them, said in a statement that his death would "increase our determination and steadfastness to continue jihad and resistance against the Zionist enemy until victory and liberation is achieved."
Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to about 3.5 million Palestinians, thousands of grieving residents milled in the streets, many carrying large pictures of Arafat or waving black flags. Mosques blared verses from the Koran, boys set tires ablaze in the streets and men fired weapons into the sky.
As bulldozers and dump trucks cleared rubble from Arafat's Ramallah compound, senior Palestinian leaders installed his successors. That there were four men named to replace him was testimony to his unique stature as the father of the Palestinian national movement, but also evidence of his autocratic, one-man rule.
The man named to lead the Fatah movement -- founded by Arafat in 1959 and long the Palestinians' most powerful mainstream political group -- was widely considered a surprising choice. Farouk Kaddoumi, 70, the foreign minister of the international Palestine Liberation Organization, rejected the Oslo accords in 1993 and refused to return from exile with Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza Strip the following year.
Palestinian officials said it was unclear whether Kaddoumi, who lives in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, would now return to the territories -- or if Israel would allow him to.
"Farouk Kaddoumi hasn't changed his point of view -- he's still against Oslo," said Ahmed Ghnaim, a senior Fatah leader in the West Bank. "He's the head of Fatah, but we have a central committee that makes decisions, not just one person."
A senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity said: "I don't think he will be allowed to enter the territories. This is what the Palestinian people need? A rejectionist?"
The speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, 55, was sworn in as interim president of the Palestinian Authority, the entity created under the Oslo accords to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although Arafat used the presidency to retain ultimate control over government operations -- particularly budgetary and security matters -- Fattouh is considered politically weak, and the post is expected to be transformed into a more ceremonial one. Fattouh's main responsibility will be to organize presidential elections within 60 days.
Mahmoud Abbas, 69, the first Palestinian prime minister and arguably the most powerful Palestinian official in the post-Arafat era, will head the PLO, the umbrella organization for most Palestinian groups here and abroad. Abbas and his successor as prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, 66, will be in charge of running the most important affairs of state, at least until a new president is elected.
Many analysts say that if the transition is smooth and there is no clash between Arafat's old guard and younger reformers, or between the Palestinian Authority and Islamic militant groups, Abbas and Qureia are likely to emerge after the elections as the strongest leaders.
"These institutions and men will determine what will happen next with regard to the succession process," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst, who said that holding elections soon was crucial to stability and the peaceful evolution to a new era.
"In the short run it may be calm, and the fact that Arafat died of an illness and not from Israeli violence will lead to a smooth transition. But after that, a lot depends on the old guard, which is inheriting these institutions," he said. "This is an opportunity for those who long ago left the institutions because Arafat controlled them and began fighting for power in the street to return and say, 'These institutions are ours, not theirs.' "