Funeral Arrangements Begin before Arafat’s Death Is Announced
November 6, 2004, 1:21 AM (GMT+02:00)
From the moment on Thursday, November 4, when a French official stood outside Percy military hospital and solemnly declared “Mr. Arafat is not dead,” preparations rushed forward for his funeral. The immediate outcome was a split that rent the Palestinian leadership and Arafat’s associates into two camps.
Jihad Islami, Hamas, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the other Palestinian organizations with a vested interest in continuing their campaign of terror against Israel were quick to plant a concocted rumor in the Palestinian street and mosques that Israel had slowly poisoned Arafat. This stratagem was intended to fan the flames of anti-Israeli violence and discredit moderate Palestinian leaders with thoughts of dialogue or peace – or even the ceasefire which Mahmoud Abbas is trying to broker. It was meant to make the Palestinians angry enough to refuse any accommodation with the Jewish state and insist on stepping up its war. This would tilt the succession struggle against the moderates and for the champions of continuing confrontation.
The failure of the Percy hospital’s physicians to publicly diagnose the ailment that brought Arafat to their institution – contrary to custom for public figures - gave wings to all kinds of vicious rumors about his illness. It enabled the Palestinian extremist factions to blacken Israel to gain an edge in round one of their fight for the succession.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly ’s sources in Ramallah and Paris describe the first camp as consisting of his wife, Suha Arafat, and personal aide Ramzi Khouri, who share a longstanding bond as members of the Christian faith, joined by Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian UN observer, and Dr. Amar Daka, his personal physician.
Only this foursome was allowed near his bed. They will decide when to disconnect the life support system and declare Yasser Arafat dead. By French law, the final word rests with his wife, Suha Arafat. She is buffeted by contrasting pressures from Palestinian leaders as well as considerations of her own financial future. The funeral will be arranged by Palestinian officials in consultation with the Israeli government.
After Arafat was hospitalized in Paris, members of the second camp, the confidential aides who accompanied him to Paris, were thrust aside and not permitted to visit him – among them, Mohammed Rashid, probably the only person privy to his personal financial secrets, his bureau chief, spokesman constant shadow Nabil Abu Rodeina, and Mohammed Dahlan, the protégé- turned-rival and former head of Palestinian “security” services in the Gaza Strip.
Once the funeral is out of the way, this second group will step into the leadership contest.
In Ramallah, Palestinian leaders sat in around-the clock conclave in a desperate attempt to make the transition orderly and agree on the funeral arrangements. To bridge the period of uncertainty, they assigned prime minister Ahmed Qureia with provisional responsibility for security and finances in the Palestinian Authority, and former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas the chair of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee.
Israel has demanded that a burial with the trappings of a state funeral must take place in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians, with some support from their European friends, are insisting on his burial in Abu Dis, the Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem that has a view of Temple Mount. Arafat had a building constructed there to house a future Palestinian parliament. It stands empty and could serve as a tomb. In Gaza, the funeral procession would follow the route taken by Arafat a decade ago on his arrival there from Tunis in the wake of the Oslo peace accords. Qureia will be in Gaza Saturday to discuss funeral arrangements with the local heads of organizations.
Both venues pose colossal security problems. Who will control the hordes of Palestinians on the move between the West Bank and Gaza Strip to attend the funeral? Who will guarantee the safety of the VIPs coming to the funeral – Western and Arab?
It has been suggested in some capitals, including Washington, that the funeral and the presence of international figures will provide an opportunity for discreet diplomacy. Americans officials may come to show their respect for the Palestinian people and mark the end of the Arafat era. They will advise the Palestinians that, if they can consign their dead leader’s campaign of terror to the past, they will be granted a new beginning on the basis of the revived Middle East roadmap to peace. The clock may then be turned back to June 2003, when President George W. Bush endorsed the roadmap at the Sharm el Sheikh Arab summit and the Aqaba conference in the presence of Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, then Palestinian prime minister.
But there is no sign that Palestinian terror assaults on Israel will be held in abeyance even for the interim. As long as they are in office, the two veteran Palestinian politicos may claim they are trying hard to stem the bloodshed and revive peace diplomacy - but neither commands the popular support, military strength or financial clout to make good on either intention.
In contrast, the forces dedicated to continuing Arafat’s path of terror – Fatah-Tanzim, al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Hamas, Jihad Islami, the Popular Front-PFLP, the Popular Resistance Committees which rule the southern part of the Gaza Strip – command a flock of many thousands of terrorists and suicide bombers.
Arafat structured the Palestinian terrorist machine around an operational nucleus of personnel drawn from the Palestinian Authority’s security services. These officers wear two hats and draw two paychecks. It is a tightly woven fabric that has proven impossible to unravel. Qureia and Abbas may genuinely try to institute reforms by taking charge of the security services. But there is no longer any way to separate out the security officers from the terrorist networks. They will be thwarted by opponents commanding a well-oiled machine of terror and access to funding sources independent of the Palestinian Authority - Syria, Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah. None of them will hold back funds from radical Palestinian elements fighting to step into Arafat’s shoes.
It is therefore more than likely that Qureia and Abbas will decide not to risk their necks by standing up to Arafat’s terrorist protégés and their external backers - or attempt to reach meaningful negotiations. They will prefer to turn a blind eye and survive. This eventuality will bring the Israel-Palestinian conflict back to the post-Aqaba summit impasse when Abbas did not lift a finger to stem Palestinian terror and the roadmap was allowed to gather dust.
Israel is braced for a highly volatile post-Arafat period marked by accelerated terrorist assaults by the Palestinian factions struggling to fill his place and grab his fortune. They will vie for control by outdoing one another in attacks on Israel. The Israeli high command has prepared contingency plans for this period under the codename “New Page.” Clearly, no one can tell at this point where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going from here or whether the new page will be more or less blood-spattered than the ones written by Yasser Arafat.