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Palestinians pour into West Bank, Gaza streets

A member of Yasser Arafat's elite personal security unit, Force 17, weeps outside the Palestinian leader's former headquarters in Gaza City on Thursday morning after hearing of Arafat's death.
A member of Yasser Arafat's elite personal security unit, Force 17, weeps outside the Palestinian leader's former headquarters in Gaza City on Thursday morning after hearing of Arafat's death.Kevin Frayer / AP
/ Source: news services

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday in an outpouring of grief over the death of Yasser Arafat, the enduring symbol of their nationalist cause.

Meantime, three Palestinians were killed, at least two of them gunmen, in fighting that erupted when militants from an armed group in Arafat’s Fatah faction attacked a Jewish settlement in central Gaza after learning of the Palestinian leader’s death.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said Thursday's attack against the heavily fortified Netzarim settlement signaled a new round of clashes against Israel to avenge the death of Arafat.

Another Palestinian was killed in stone-throwing clashes in the West Bank, Palestinian medics said.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, tearful Palestinians flocked to Arafat’s battered headquarters where the veteran leader — who died at Paris hospital — was to be buried after a ceremony in Cairo on Friday.

Temporary PA president sworn in
Inside the compound, the Palestinian parliament speaker was sworn in as temporary president of the Palestinian Authority, assuming one of Arafat's three top jobs.

The speaker, Rauhi Fattouh, a virtual unknown, was sworn in at a special parliament session. Under the law, he is to be caretaker president for at most 60 days, until elections are held.

"I swear by God to protect the nation, the homeland and its sacred places and respect the law and take care of the interests of  the people," Fattouh said.

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a critic of the most recent Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was named as successor to Arafat as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Meantime, workers stepped up their labors on the grounds of the compound, where they were preparing a gravesite that was to become a shrine to Arafat, who died at 75, his dream of a Palestinian state unrealized.

Palestinian flags flew at half-mast over the sandbagged buildings as soldiers and bodyguards consoled each other.

Gaza City demonstrations
“Our father is dead,” construction worker Fathi Abu Adnan said in Gaza City, where gunmen pumped bullets into the air and youths burned tires on the roads, sending up plumes of black smoke as Koranic verses blared from loudspeakers.

A masked gunman of al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Arafat’s Fatah movement and one of the main groups spearheading a four-year-old uprising, vowed to fight on against Israel.

“We will kill anyone who would try to bargain over issues President Arafat rejected,” he said. “No for concessions over Jerusalem, no for settling refugees, yes for a Palestinian independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

“We will not rest until we drive the Zionists out of our land,” he said. Al Aqsa has been behind numerous suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.

“This is the saddest day of my life,” said one woman, clad in black mourning dress, as she sobbed outside the walls of the Ramallah compound, where Arafat had been effectively confined by Israeli troops for two and a half years.

Hundreds of mourners also gathered at Ramallah’s central Manara Square, where portraits of the dead leader were plastered on a statue of a lion.

40-day mourning period
Many shops were shuttered as the Palestinian Authority declared a 40-day mourning period in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Arafat will never die, he is the leader, he is the father,” proclaimed a taxi driver in Ramallah as he stood on the hood of his car and held up a photo of Arafat.

“We lost a symbol,” Jarir Kanadeelo, 36, said in the West Bank city of Nablus.

As word of Arafat’s death spread in south Lebanon, hundreds of Palestinians rushed into the narrow streets of the Ain el-Hilweh camp, while gunmen loyal to his Fatah faction fired their rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the air.

Witnesses said at least one person was injured by the bursts of gunfire booming through the camp.

'National day of farewell'
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Arafat aide, said Arafat would be buried on Saturday in Ramallah in what he called a “national day of farewell.”

A memorial service was to be held in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday.

Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat’s main political rivals, expressed sorrow and paid tribute.

Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas’ spokesman in Gaza, called on the group’s supporters to honor Arafat and work toward national unity.

“We lost by his death one of our great symbols and one of the main focuses of our national struggle and identity,” Abu Zuhri told The Associated Press.

Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza Nafez Azzam said “with hearts full of belief in God’s will we mourn President Yasser Arafat who was a great leader for the Palestinian people.”