There Is Life After Arafat

RAMALLAH – Ramallah moves to the slow and heavy rhythm of any Muslim town in the Middle East during the fasting month of Ramadan.

The only sign of anything amiss with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is the permanent vigil that the world press holds outside his ruined headquarters, the Muqata, where he was effectively kept locked up by the Israelis for more than two-and-a-half years.

And in the evening on a large screen in the city center, Palestinian television shows scenes from the career of the veteran leader now said to be fighting for his life in a hospital near Paris.

The confusion surrounding the fate of Arafat, all the contradictory statements surrounding his condition, including reports that he is on life support and brain dead, may have served to diffuse some of the immediate emotions that Palestinians are bound to feel at this moment in history.

The official line of the leadership that gathers daily in continuous emergency sessions inside the Muqata is that Arafat is gravely ill, fighting for his life, in a reversible coma. They have asked everybody to show restraint in speculation surrounding his health.

Minister Kadoura Fares in a rare moment of candor lets the mask slip. "If anybody insists on keeping him alive, it is because they fear the reaction of the people, who were even reluctant to hear that he was ill, let alone dead."

He quickly corrects himself to say that he has no firm information on the exact state of Arafat’s health and that rumors of his death are probably spread by Israel "to create chaos and panic."

Chaos and panic is just what a lot of people fear in the Palestinian areas after Arafat. It is widely believed now that the leader is on life support and that he will not be allowed to die until the politicians in Ramallah are confident they can control the situation and no factional infighting will take place.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was due to consult "all the Palestinian factions" including the militant movements Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. For the time being he is emerging as a central figure in the Palestinian Authority. But former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has taken over the running of the Fatah movement and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

One of the most difficult issues may turn out to be burial for the Palestinian leader. Arafat is said to have expressed the wish to be buried inside the al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem.

This is, of course, a politically explosive request. It is the site at the symbolic center of the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, and it is where the latest Intifada uprising was sparked four years ago.

Israel is adamant that Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem. It has security concerns arising from thousands of Palestinians marching on Jerusalem for the funeral, as well as political ones. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

"Jerusalem is the place where we bury Jewish kings, not Palestinian terrorists," said Israeli Justice Minister Yoseph Lapid in a statement that will only fuel Palestinian anger.

But many in Ramallah are not very concerned about the personal fate of Arafat, let alone his burial site. From simple office workers to rich businessmen, there is a lot of ambivalence about the veteran leader.

The Friday prayers at the central Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque in Ramallah offered a clue. "What about a prayer for our leader," one lone voice arose toward the end of the service in the mosque that was overflowing with people.

Once outside, a group of men argued heatedly about the omission. "It is shameful, the sheikh did not mention even one word about the president," said one. It is not uncommon in Muslim countries to offer prayers for ailing leaders, or at least mention concern for their health in the Friday sermon.

But one man, sporting the beard of someone who identifies himself with the Muslim movement, was blunt in his disdain for the leader. "I think the sheikh did the right thing," he said. "Arafat doesn’t mean anything to me, I did not agree with his policies, even before he signed the Oslo accords."

In the evening, when all of Ramallah comes into the street to shop for the approaching feast at the end of fasting, some people expressed sympathy for the ailing leader.

"I feel sorry for him but I think people don’t really pay attention any more because of all the confusing reports," said Um Munir, who was out shopping for clothes with her four children.

Nisreen Lubadeh who works for the Palestinian Authority had a very different take. "People either don’t care or don’t like him and are even relieved," she said. "As for me, the only thing that I was hoping, unrealistically probably, is that after him we will get better leaders."

In the upmarket restaurant Darna, businessman Sam Bahour is having an iftar meal to break the fast. He had a more nuanced approach to the illness of the leader.

"I don’t want to tie the whole future of a people to one man," he said. "A lot of people feel sad because he is our leader and we went through a lot together. But I do hope we develop the institutions and the mechanisms to achieve stability, regardless of who leads us."