Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dead
75-year-old, both revered and reviled, succumbs in Paris
MSNBC News Services
Updated: 6:45 a.m. ET Nov. 11, 2004
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla leader turned Nobel Peace Prize winner who forced his people’s plight into the world spotlight, died Thursday at age 75.
Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. in a French military hospital. His last days were as murky and dramatic as his life. Arafat was flown to France on Oct. 29 after nearly three years of being penned in his West Bank headquarters by Israeli tanks.
He initially improved but then sharply deteriorated as rumors swirled about his illness. Neither doctors nor Palestinian leaders would say what killed Arafat.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of the Gaza Strip in a spontaneous show of grief. Dozens of gunmen fired into the air, and marchers waved Palestinian flags.
Mosques blared Quranic verses and children burned tires on the main streets, covering the skies in black smoke. People pasted posters of Arafat on building walls.
Within hours, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was chosen to succeed Arafat as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was expected remain in charge of day-to-day governing.
Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was to be sworn in as Palestinian Authority president until elections are held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law.
Farouk Kaddoumi, a top Palestinian hard-liner who has rejected past peacemaking with Israel, was named head of the mainstream Fatah movement to succeed Arafat, a Palestinian official told Reuters.
Officials said they wanted to ensure a smooth transition, despite concern both at home and abroad that a behind-the-scenes power struggle to assume the Arafat mantle could result in chaos and violence.
Israel quickly sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increased security at Jewish settlements, fearing widespread Palestinian riots in the coming days.
“The Israeli Defense Forces are deploying to allow a dignified funeral ceremony for chairman Arafat,” an army statement said.
The military said it would restrict access to the funeral and burial, set for Friday in Ramallah, and only allow Palestinians with permits to attend. The military will allow processions in towns and refugee camps, officials said.
A military funeral was scheduled earlier Friday in Cairo, a location that allows Arab leaders to avoid travel to the West Bank, where Israel controls access.
Sharon: Death could be a 'historic turning point'
Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, without mentioning Arafat by name, said his death could provide an “historic turning point in the Middle East. Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay.”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath called on Israel to resume implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, saying it was time Israel met its obligations.
“Now, the road is open, and we are telling the Israelis, welcome if you want to implement the road map, then implement it,” Shaath said. “It was the path of President Arafat, and we will go on the path of Arafat.”
President Bush issued a statement of condolence to the Palestinian people.
“We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors,” the president said.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat and assassinated Israeli leader Yitzak Rabin, said, “The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace.”
Flags at half staff in Ramallah
Palestinian flags at Arafat’s battered Ramallah compound were lowered to half staff. Television broadcast excerpts from the Quran with a picture of Arafat in the background.
“He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people,” said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears as he announced Arafat’s death.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was saddened by Arafat’s passing.
“President Arafat was one of those few leaders who could be instantly recognized by people in any walk of life all around the world. For nearly four decades, he expressed and symbolized in his person the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
Top Palestinian officials flew in to check on their leader while Arafat’s 41-year-old wife, Suha, publicly accused them of trying to usurp his powers. Ordinary Palestinians prayed for his well being, but expressed deep frustration over his failure to improve their lives.
Arafat’s failure to groom a successor complicated his passing, raising the danger of factional conflict among Palestinians.
The State Department issued an advisory urging American citizens to take precautions because Arafat's death "has the potential to produce demonstrations and unrest throughout the region." The advisory cited ongoing security concerns and remind Americans to maintain "a high level of vigilance."
Revered, reviled in equal measure
A visual constant in his checkered keffiyeh headdress, Arafat kept the Palestinians’ cause at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But he fell short of creating a Palestinian state, and, along with other secular Arab leaders of his generation, he saw his influence weakened by the rise of radical Islam in recent years.
Revered by his own people, Arafat was reviled by others. He was accused of secretly fomenting attacks on Israelis while proclaiming brotherhood and claiming to have put terrorism aside. Many Israelis felt the paunchy 5-foot, 2-inch Palestinian’s real goal remained the destruction of the Jewish state.
Arafat became one of the world’s most familiar faces after addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, when he entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a sprig. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Two decades later, he shook hand at the White House with Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel’s right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and Peres.
But the accord quickly unraveled amid mutual suspicions and accusations of treaty violations, and a new round of violence that erupted in the fall of 2000 has killed some 4,000 people, three-quarters of them Palestinian.
The Israeli and U.S. governments said Arafat deserved much of the blame for the derailing of the peace process. Even many of his own people began whispering against Arafat, expressing disgruntlement over corruption, lawlessness and a bad economy in the Palestinian areas.