Tears and gunshots, praise and condemnation marked the death of Yasser Arafat, whose fight for the Palestinian cause made him a towering and controversial figure on the world stage.
Arafat’s death at a French hospital Thursday morning of an undisclosed illness was announced just as the sun was rising in the Middle East. In the teeming Palestinian refugee camps of Ein el-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh in southern Lebanon, burning tires spewed heavy black smoke and guerrillas fired into the air, rites of mourning that expressed frustration as well as sadness.
Houses on Ein el-Hilweh’s streets and alleys were bedecked with Arafat’s pictures, Palestinian flags and black banners. Arafat has strong loyalties in the camp, but also fierce rivals. Ein el-Hilweh, known for its lawlessness, is home to about 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were displaced by war since the 1948 creation of Israel, and who had pinned hopes on Arafat’s promises he would lead them home.
Tears in Egypt
At Cairo University, the campus where Arafat earned an engineering degree decades ago, one student was moved to tears.
“Every leader has both mistakes and accomplishments,” said 19-year-old Nadia, who gave only her first name. “I think he was a very kind person. His people loved him very much.”
Egypt, which will give Arafat a state funeral Friday, and Jordan announced three days’ mourning. Egypt called him a “historic leader” who strove for “peace, security and stability.”
He also was mourned in most of the Arab world, though there were few tears shed in Kuwait, where he was widely despised for backing Saddam Hussein’s 1990-91 occupation of the Gulf Arab state.
While several Arab countries declared three days of mourning, Kuwait stuck to business as usual and prepared to send a relatively low-ranking official to Arafat’s funeral.
In Saudi Arabia, which mended strained relations after the Gulf war, state television ran programs depicting Arafat as the “symbol of Palestinian struggle” and King Fahd expressed his “great pain and deep distress” at his death. Yemen and Qatar announced three-day periods of official mourning.
State-run Jordan radio and television replaced regular programming with recitations of Quranic verses interrupted only by hourly news bulletins.
Israelis offered little regret over Arafat’s death, noting his terrorist past. But many were hopeful that it would revive efforts to bring peace to the troubled region.
Sharon says death could be ‘turning point’
“The recent events could be a historic turning point for the Middle East,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said. “Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay.”
President Bush acknowledged Arafat’s death was “a significant moment in Palestinian history.”
Bush, who had accused Arafat of blocking peace with Israel, expressed condolences to the Palestinian people.
“We hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors,” added Bush, the first U.S. president to publicly call for an independent Palestinian state.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is expected to press for a Middle East peace push in his planned meeting with Bush on Friday in Washington, said Arafat “led his people to an historic acceptance and the need for a two-state solution.” He said that was something “we must continue to work tirelessly to achieve.”
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said history would judge Arafat harshly.
Arafat could have helped secure Middle East peace by accepting a deal in 2000 that would have resulted in the Israelis “agreeing to about 90 percent of what the Palestinians had wanted,” said Howard, who added that he found it hard to believe that Arafat could not have done more to restrain terrorists.
In China, President Hu Jintao said Arafat was “an outstanding leader of the Palestinian cause.”
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi praised Arafat’s efforts on behalf of peace and his people, citing his signing of the 1993 Israel-PLO accord that gave him control of most of Gaza Strip and 27 percent of West Bank.
World leaders praise Arafat
“Yasser Arafat spent his entire life for the Palestinian cause. We pray that his mission is completed after his death,” Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told the Associated Press from Saudi Arabia, where he was participating in the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder credited Arafat with striving to lead the Palestinians to independence, regretting that “it was not granted to Yasser Arafat to complete his life’s work.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Palestinians had suffered a heavy loss, and his Foreign Ministry called for the international community, Israel and the Palestinians to redouble peace efforts.
French President Jacques Chirac, who visited Arafat days before his death, called him a “man of courage and conviction who, for 40 years, has incarnated the Palestinians’ combat for recognition of their national rights.”
Praise also came from the European Union, the Arab League and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said Arafat had “expressed and symbolized in his person the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
‘A symbol of ... aspiration’
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the Palestinian people “have lost a symbol of the aspiration to assert their own national identity.”
“We hope that all Palestinians will peacefully commit themselves to bringing about the objective of two states — their own and Israel — living side by side in safety, freedom and social development,” he said.
A condolence message to Palestinian authorities from the Vatican said Pope John Paul II was praying “to the prince of peace that the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land” so that Palestinians and Israelis “may live reconciled among themselves as two independent and sovereign states.”
The message also said the pope “in this hour of sadness” was “particularly close” to Arafat’s family, the authorities and the Palestinian people.
In a message of condolence, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told Palestinians: “You have set out on the path to independent statehood and an enduring, just and peaceful settlement of the conflict. ... As you continue along this road, you may be assured of the undiminished support of the Netherlands.”