Arafat buried amid chaos in Muqata

By Arnon Regular (Ramallah), Amos Harel and Jonathan Lis, Haaretz Correspondents, and Agencies RAMALLAH – To the roars of tens of thousands of Palestinians, and shots in the air fired by tense Palestinian police and masked gunmen, the flag-draped casket of Yasser Arafat was borne through milling, surging crowds Friday for burial in a plot next to the office to which Israel confined the Palestinian leader for nearly three years. The burial ceremony followed a solemn funeral ceremony earlier in the day in Cairo, attended by world dignitaries. Egyptian helicopters then flew Arafat’s body and accompanying PA leaders to a parking lot near the burial site prepared for the Palestinian leader.

The jeep carrying the casket crawled forward through the crush of the crowd, with uniformed PA security men sprawling over the coffin to protect it, at times hurling mourners off the casket when they clambered atop. At one point, the Palestinian flag adorning the coffin was ripped apart. Gunmen holding assault rifles aloft by one hand fired long bursts into the air. Two mourners were reportedly lightly wounded by the gunfire. About 30 people were treated for fainting and other conditions related to the over-crowding. As the Egyptian copters first circled, then touched down in Ramallah Friday afternoon, thousands surged forward in an attempt to touch the craft and reach the coffin, to the consternation of the police guarding the area. Jostling mourners out of the way, an SUV driven by Palestinian police stormed a path through the throng, in an effort to reach the helicopter and transfer the casket to the area in which in was to lie in state prior to burial. Senior Palestinian officials peered from the partially open side door of one of the helicopters, apparently conferring over how best to control the milling, packed crowd and begin the ceremony. After nearly a half-hour, Palestinian cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabo pleaded with the crowd to withdraw from the helicopter. The casket, draped with the Palestinian flag, then emerged, to roaring from the crowd. The jeep, hastily loaded with the casket, drove to a prepared plot near Arafat’s spartan office in the partially ruined Muqata headquarters compound. Palestinian officials said the tomb was a temporary structure, to stand only until Arafat’s remains are exhumed and re-interred at some future time at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel strongly opposes such a move. The site, which marks the site of the ancient Jewish temples, is sacred to Moslems as the Noble Sanctuary Thousands burst into compound Earlier, tens of thousands of Palesinian youths had burst into the compound without authorization, joining additional thousands gathered for the ceremony, which followed a morning funeral for Arafat in Cairo. At one point before the helicopters landed, masked Palestinians carrying swords aloft filed into the outer compound, joining large throngs. Several Palestinians bearing assault rifles were seen presenting the rifles for inspection at the entrance to the outer compound. Guards at the entrance to the area examined the rifle magazines, then returned them to the gunmen, who re-loaded their weapons. Palestinians continued to stream into the area throughout the afternoon, with 140 buses leaving various sections of the West Bank to get to Ramallah, 100 buses leaving from East Jerusalem and another 20 from the Gaza Strip. Israel is permitting all the West Bank Palestinians to travel to the Ramallah compound on condition they used the available public transport. IDF troops at the roadblocks were instructed not to check the identity cards of all the passengers. Early Friday, workers raked sand to level the ground as they laid gray marble slabs around the base of the open, stone-lined, tomb. The Palestinians consider the grave site temporary – a place for Arafat’s body until the day they hope they can honor his request to be buried in Jerusalem. Flags flew at half staff in the compound, where Palestinian policemen rehearsed rifle drills for the ceremony. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia briefly stopped by to inspect progress on Arafat’s tomb, while outside a few young men sat, heads clasped in their hands, next to posters of Arafat and piles of wilting flowers. Police forces were on the highest state of alert ahead of Arafat’s burial, due to take place at 4 P.M. For its part, the Israel Defense Forces will impose a total closure on the territories during the burial ceremony. The entire police operational force will be deployed around the country, although no substantial information about intentions to riot has been received. The police’s chief concern, apart from a spectacular terror attack, is that riots will break out on the Temple Mount on the last day of Ramadan, close to the time of Arafat’s burial. On Friday morning dozens of Palestinians attempted to force their way into the Temple Mount, but were stopped by police guarding the entrances to the esplanade. The incident was limited in scope and did not involve any stone throwing. Earlier on Friday, police forces dispersed hundreds of rioting Palestinians at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp north of Jerusalem. No casualties were reported. Security forces were not allowing men below the age of 45 or non-Israeli Arabs to go to the Temple Mount on Friday. Some 5,000 policemen and soldiers were deployed on the Temple Mount, in East Jerusalem and along „the Jerusalem envelope,” which will be hermetically sealed off. The police prepared for a rabge of scenarios, including riots by tens of thousands of worshipers who could enter Jewish neighborhoods, en route from the Temple Mount to the funeral procession in Ramallah. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with senior officials in the security establishment to discuss preparations for the burial. They agreed to take a lenient approach to the event, and attempt as much as possible to respond favorably to the Palestinian Authority’s requests.