Palestinians reach out to their leader for a final embrace

Palestinians use the mounds of wrecked cars and building rubble created by a series of Israeli army incursions to get a better view of the arrival of Arafat’s body. (Jonathan Cook)

With the whole of the West Bank locked down by the Israeli army on the day of Yasser Arafat’s burial, we made our way to Beitunia, the official crossing point into Ramallah from Israel. For Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs, Israel’s Palestinian citizens and foreigners it was the sole gateway to the Muqata’a compound, the place where “Abu Ammar”, the Palestinian president, was to be buried.

Greeting us at a dusty car park before Beitunia checkpoint was a short khaki-clad soldier, armed with clipboard, called Tali - we knew that because she was wearing a name tag in three languages. She and the other soldiers had also been ordered to take off their helmets and berets and wear instead customer-friendly blue baseball caps bearing the initials MP (presumably short for Military Police).

A bus was brought to take us to the checkpoint, its jovial Israeli driver in jeans and T-shirt and driving barefoot. The only clue that he might not be a civilian was an army helmet just visible under his seat.

The refurbished checkpoint gave the impression we were about to enter a football match rather than the funeral of a man Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon told the world he wished he’d killed long ago. The soldiers gave our passports a cursory glance. On the far side was a large tank of drinking water and, next to it, men and women’s portable toilets.

If only crossing an Israeli checkpoint was always like this.

At the Muqata’a, it was 1.30pm local time (11.30 GMT) and the crowds were spilling into the compound, forcing their way in. After years of repeated beatings from Israeli armour, the Muqata’a offered little resistance to the youngsters determined to find a way over its walls. On the other side they found moutains of wrecked cars and building rubble — the debris of Israeli incursions — lining the edges of the compound which had only been partially cleared by bulldozers in the past few days.

Every available surface of the Muqata’a compound is transformed into a viewing platform. (Jonathan Cook)

The prize spots had been taken hours beforehand. TV crews were in the highest buildings outside the Muqata’a, overlooking the walls. Inside, crowds had forced their way into the few buildings still standing — including the main office where Arafat had been imprisoned for his final weeks, months and years — and raced to the rooftops.

At ground level, Palestinians mingled in their tens of thousands: men in suits, old women in peasant dress, boys wearing keffiyehs, armed men in the various uniforms of the Palestinian Authority’s security services and armed men in jeans. It was impossible to know how many were there. The roofs and windows of every building in sight of the Muqata’a seethed with human figures. On the 15-minute drive from Beitunia to the Muqata’a there was not a soul on the streets of Ramallah apart from one man, painting his iron fence.

The shooting into the air began sporadically even before the distant sound of two helicopters announced the imminent arrival of the Rais (“President”) a little after 2pm. Dust swirled throughout the compound as they landed and yet more volleys of shots rang out — most fired in excitement rather than to control the crowds as has been suggested. “This is how we greet our leader,” said one teenager waving a poster of Arafat.

Few in the compound, apart from the raucous young men nearest the helicopters, knew what was obvious to TV viewers: that the Arab dignitaries were unable to leave the helicopters for some time because of the crush, or to convey the coffin in a dignified manner to the hearse.

Palestinian soldiers protect Arafat’s coffin from the crowds of mourners as his hearse drives to the central Muqata’a building where he was a virtual prisoner for much of the Intifada. (Jonathan Cook)

Much of the rest of crowd, however, waited patiently, mostly silently, atop their piles of wrecked cars, or rooftops, or concrete-filled barrels placed around the perimeters of rubble, for the moment they seemed to know would come their way soon enough.

First the people moved as a wave, parting to make room for a jeep bearing soldiers firing into the air followed closely behind by the hearse itself. Some of the soldiers sat atop the coffin in defiance, others sprawled themselves over the casket as if trying to prevent it from falling off the vehicle.

The crowd surged back around the hearse every time it slowed, pushed forward by the cheering and bodies behind them, reaching out to their leader for a final embrace.

Then the vehicle was gone, disappearing into another section of the Muqata’a. Only the sound of gunfire still echoed in its wake.

By 3.40pm the crush of onlookers thinned out, the burial presumably over. By 4pm the helicopters were leaving with their high-ranking crew, to waves and more gunfire.

The crowds bid farewell to the helicopter that bore Arafat’s body to the Muqata’a. (Jonathan Cook)

But as they disappeared, a faint sound of rotor blades remained. High above the Muqata’a another helicopter, an Israeli one, kept on circling and watching Ramallah.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, International Herald Tribune, Al-Ahram Weekly, and other newspapers. Based in Nazareth, Cook is an occasional contributor to EI. He is currently writing a book on the Palestinian citizens of Israel.