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First-Hand Reports from Israel/Palestine

Thousands Welcome Arafat’s Body Home

Amid chanting, gunfire, clapping and weeping, Yasser Arafat was welcomed home to his final resting place by more than 200,000 Palestinians on November 12.

Kim Bullimore works with the human rights group, the International Women’s Peace Service in the Occupied West Bank of Palestine.

By Kim Bullimore in Ramallah
Green Left Weekly
November 17, 2004

Tens of thousands wearing the familiar checked kaffir [or kaffiyeh] and carrying pictures of their dead president crammed into the Muqatu, the compound which had been Arafat’s headquarters and prison for the last three years. Tens of thousands of others thronged the streets outside, while thousands more clambered to the top of surrounding buildings and several thousand climbed atop the walls of the compound.

People had begun to gather at the compound from early morning, many travelling from Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank to be in Ramallah before Arafat’s body was flown in from the official ceremony which was held in Cairo. Many of those travelling from the West Bank, however, had to suffer huge delays due to checkpoints and roadblocks set up by the Israeli security forces. Between Nablus and Ramallah alone, Palestinians had to traverse 10 mobile Israeli Defense Force checkpoints. This was despite Israel giving assurances that it would not hamper passage of Palestinians who wanted to attend the funeral.

On November 11, when Arafat’s death was announced, thousands of Palestinians gathered at the Muqata to express their sorrow and solidarity with their president. Several marches were held throughout the day, with mourners making their way from the Muqata compound to the Menara Circle in central Ramallah.

During one march, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade distributed statements saying that they would continue to fight for a free Palestine. In the evening, hundreds of other mourners lit candles and laid flowers and pictures of the Palestinian leader outside the compound.

On November 12, thousands of young Palestinian men climbed onto the broken and devastated buildings in the compound in hope of getting a better view of Arafat’s final arrival. The buildings, which were destroyed in the Israeli military bombardment of the compound, were now decorated with huge posters of Arafat. At one time during the day, one person fell from the building and was injured, while another section of the devastated infrastructure collapsed under the weight of the people on it.

Throughout the day, chants went up calling for people to march to Jerusalem, while at other times the air was punctured with sounds of gunfire. Hundreds of people also waved the Palestinian flag, while many others carried high, signs and placards saying “Merci France”, as well as “Fuck Bush, Merci Chirac” to highlight the generosity afforded to Arafat during his last weeks of illness in France.

At around 2.30pm, four helicopters appeared on the Ramallah skyline, one carrying the body of the dead president. In one voice, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians began chanting and whistling as the helicopters flew over the compound. After their initial flyby, two of the helicopters doubled back to land in the compound. As Arafat’s body landed, the massive crowded chanted, “Yasser, Yasser, Yasser”. Militants in the crowd began rapid fire of bullets into the air in honour of the president's arrival.

Due to the crush of the crowd, it took over half-an-hour for the casket to be transported from the helicopter to the Muqata building. As Arafat’s casket passed by, thousands tried to get closer. Ambulances were called to attend a number of people who sustained crush injuries or had fainted due to the crowd pressure.

As the Palestinian leader’s body was taken to be buried, the thousands present chanted that they would continue to carry on his struggle until Palestine would be free.

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