Masked Palestinian militants carry a coffin covered with the Palestinian flag and posters of president Yasser Arafat during a mock funeral in Gaza
Suhaib Salem  /  Reuters
Masked Palestinian militants carry a coffin covered with the Palestinian flag and posters of Yasser Arafat during a mock funeral in the Gaza Strip on Friday.  
By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/12/2004 11:52:03 AM ET 2004-11-12T16:52:03

At the moment Yasser Arafat's body was lowered into his tomb in Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip vented their sorrow with shouts of grief and bursts of gunfire. 

The only leader they had known for more than 30 years was finally being laid to rest.

Many Palestinians who might have gone to the burial in Ramallah from the Gaza Strip were prevented by Israeli troops who tightened controls around Palestinian cities, citing a possible threat of militant attacks linked to the burial.

Yet, the Palestinians in Gaza were determined to mark the moment.

Marches in Gaza
Thousands marched in Gaza City's streets to Arafat's former headquarters on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Many carried flags of Islam and representing the different Palestinian groups Arafat wielded together under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Many of the marchers were armed, some were masked. One group was dressed as suicide bombers marking more than 160 attacks against Israeli targets over the past few years.

A small group of masked gunmen marched into the former compound, ignoring the calls from official Palestine TV not to carry arms or mask faces, as is common in Palestinian funerals during times of crisis. However, the gunmen calmly submitted to inspection by plainclothes security personnel who ensured there were no bullets in the chambers.

Yasser Arafat's personal armored car, empty and surrounded by grieving members of his bodyguard unit, was driven slowly to the Palestinian leader's former headquarters on the seafront.

Some of the militant groups — Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — announced their armed struggle to liberate Palestinian lands from Israel would continue.

Determination continues
Sixty percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people are refugees from villages and towns inside territorial Israel abandoned in 1948 and in 1967 when Israel first established its independence and then consolidated its hold on territories around its borders.

There was little talk of who will succeed Arafat as the next charismatic leader of the Palestinians.

While many of the leading candidates are known and respected in international circles, ordinary Palestinians know any emerging new leader will have to have the support of the streets. 

And on Gaza's streets the mood is one of continued determination to see an independent Palestinian state. Palestinians in Gaza will support a new leader who they feel has the best hope of achieving that goal as quickly as possible.

Tom Aspell is an NBC News correspondent based in Tel Aviv. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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