Even as they mourn, Palestinians see a threat - and an opportunity
By 8.30am, with plumes of acrid black smoke already curling above Ramallah's road junctions from pyres of burning tyres, a crowd had begun to gather in silent groups at the Manara, the main square and commercial heart of the West Bank city where Yasser Arafat will be buried in a stone-cased coffin this afternoon.
Some brandished fans of palm leaves bearing portraits of the dead man who had symbolised the struggle for Palestinian statehood for more than a generation. Many were true believers, like Shad Yusef, a 29-year-old Fatah member, who had real tears in his eyes as he contemplated two whole pages of Arafat pictures in a copy of Al-Quds newspaper spread out on the boot of a parked car. Invoking the nom de guerre that, as a 30-year-old activist in Kuwait, Arafat grandly took in memory of the warrior companion to the Prophet Mohammed, Mr Yusef spoke for many when he added: "I will never forget him. He is engraved on my heart. No one will ever lead the Palestinians like Abu Ammar."
He was speaking 10 hours before the body of his hero was escorted on to a French government jet amid a rare display of military pomp and ceremony by the French army for the flight from Paris to Cairo and a state funeral today. To the strains of a funeral march and both the Palestinian and French national anthems, a black and red uniformed guard of honour escorted his coffin past his weeping wife, Suha, who had not seen him for the four years before his last illness.
President Chirac, who made all this possible, went on to lavish praise on the "courage and conviction" of Arafat who died at 3.30am yesterday.The ceremonial at the Villacoublay airfield will have comforted Mr Yusef. For him and hundreds of others who gathered in Ramallah's town centre and outside the Muqata compound where Arafat had seethed in frustration for the last two and a half years of his life, no one can fill the Palestinian presidency as he did. But they know, like the many more who stayed more inscrutably out of sight at home yesterday, that someone else will have to lead the Palestinians now.
The issue of who will succeed the old man and even more importantly by what process and on what platform the succession will take place is of fundamental importance to the Middle East and a troubled and fearful world beyond. It lies behind the laconic remark of Ariel Sharon that the natural death of a man he often wished aloud he had killed in the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 could be a "turning point". It will be the main topic among the foreign dignitaries who gather briefly in Cairo this morning for an airport ceremony that will bring two sides of a divided world uneasily together as perhaps no other has done since the death of Josef Tito. It will surely dominate the talks between Tony Blair and George Bush in Washington today. For it goes to the heart of the biggest question for the world's most intractable conflict since the Oslo accords, perhaps since the Six-Day War in 1967: Is Arafat's death a threat or an opportunity?
Each of the parties to the conflict Arafat did so much to define faces momentous decisions in the days ahead. The transitional Palestinian leadership say that an orderly, but also a democratic, succession is paramount. The one certainty is that Rahwi Fattouh, the Gazan speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who was solemnly sworn in with impressive speed yesterday as the second President in the Palestinian Authority's inglorious 10-year history, is no more than a temporary figurehead. The real power in that period will be wielded by Abu Mazen, as the head of the PLO, and, to a perhaps slightly lesser extent, Ahmad Qureia, the Prime Minister.
The signs at present though the 60 days within which Fattouh is bound to call a vote under the PA basic law is a long time indeed in Palestinian politics are that Abu Mazen recognises that elections for the presidency are vital for the succession's legitimacy.
It was hard to find anyone on Ramallah streets boarded up as shops were closed in mourning who didn't want elections to happen soon. Asked whom she thought would succeed Arafat, one mourner, Areej Daibas, declared pointedly: "It will be whom the people choose."
It also goes without saying that a new President also needs that legitimacy if he is to have any hope of assuming some of the authority as well as the office of the dead president; even more so if he were to try to curb militant violence as well as represent his people in the future negotiations that some believe could just be possible now that the Israeli Prime Minister's principal reason for refusing them has been removed from the stage.
The promise of elections would not itself remove the threat of what some Palestinians fear will be an outbreak of bloodletting and murderous score-settling in the wake of Mr Arafat's death, though they may well help.
There may also yet be argument over whether Abu Mazen or a figure like Marwan Barghouti, currently languishing in an Israeli jail and whom Mr Yusef and many younger Fatah activists would prefer, emerges as a Fatah candidate.
The election yesterday of Farouk Kaddoumi, an opponent of the Oslo peace accords in which Mr Qureia and Abu Mazen were key participants, to replace Arafat as Fatah leader, at least complicates that choice.
There is no certainty that a new leadership can even control the militant Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades which looked up only to the dead president and which indicated yesterday it would change its name to the Arafat brigades. So, the challenge for the new Palestinian leadership is not to sacrifice the unity of purpose that it will need to offset its loss of a single, charismatic figure.
But there will also be a challenge for Israel. If elections to ahead, it would have a crucial role, for example, in easing the roadblocks and closures throughout the occupied territories that would make national campaigning an almost impossible task.
The EU will urge Mr Sharon's government to do so; most European leaders believe the risks of success by supporters of militant factions in such elections would be offset by the gains of their entry into the democratic process. Particularly if, as some Palestinian politicians suggest, a ceasefire would be called by militant factions. And they believe that Abu Mazen, still the likeliest Fatah candidate and a figure interested in the possibility of negotiations with Israel, would stand a reasonable chance though no certainty of winning.
As so often, however, the outcome could depend on the intentions of the US, the one power with real traction over Israeli policy.
Up to now Washington has been largely silent on the subject. On the one hand it will hardly want to incur ridicule, as a superpower committed to exporting democracy to the Middle East, by allowing Israel to hamper attempts by the Palestinians to hold free elections.
On the other, it might make what may yet prove a historic error in thinking that is a price worth paying to ensure that militants do not gain from such elections. If Tony Blair represents European thinking in his talks with President Bush today, he will urge him to press Mr Sharon to do everything he can to make credible elections possible.
In Ramallah yesterday as elsewhere in the West Bank, hundreds of men, many with black and white keffiyahs round their necks, and sprinklings of women, marched through the streets. They chanted: "Do not worry Abu Ammar, from Ramallah to the Jordan river we will hold your line."
Outside the walls of the Muqata, more than a dozen women, many weeping, sang an elegiac lament: "The light has gone out. The jewel has fallen."
A group of six masked young men in the black tunics of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' brigade marched repeatedly through the streets around the Manara carrying hatchets and firing rounds from a 9mm automatic pistol into the air.
The grief shown by many was ritually expressed by some but it was palpably genuine in others, including those who might have freely criticised Arafat's Palestinian Authority while he was alive.
"Congratulations to Sharon for his death," said Ibrahim Hassan, 57, bitterly. "All the people were with Arafat."
But although they may be much larger for the burial this afternoon, the crowds were modest yesterday and in the decayed streets of the Amari refugee camp it was possible to find fear, uncertainty and even a little hope as well as grief in the wake of Arafat's death.
A female resident, Azizeh Mousa, bitterly denounced the PA for doing nothing to help "the families of martyrs and handicapped people" and predicted that Abu Mazen would not be elected but "imposed on us by Israel and the United States".
But a local businessman, Sheikh Rayed al Sorraj, 32, praised Abu Mazen for trying to take control of the security forces during his premiership last year. He added: "I would support him if he used force against the militants if they tried to do bad things. If they kill one Jew and then 100 homes are demolished they are not acting logically."
A barber, Mohammed Hammad, 38, agreed, saying: "I support the halt of military operations and a start of negotiations. But I hope Israel will encourage us.
"The death of Yasser Arafat should be a step forward and not a step back."