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2004-11-12

The Funeral of Yasser Arafat: World Leaders Pay Respects in Cairo, Tens of Thousands Attend Ramallah Burial

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The funeral of Yasser Arafat is underway. A private state funeral was held in Cairo as kings, presidents and heads of state paid their respects to the lifelong Palestinian leader. A helicopter then flew Arafat’s body to the West Bank to be buried at his compound in Ramallah where he was confined in his final years. Tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners swarmed the coffin as it was carried to the burial site. We go to Cairo to speak with an Egyptian reporter on the ground, to the West Bank to hear from an independent reporter attending the funeral in Ramallah and to Gaza to speak with veteran politician and political leader Haider Abdel Shafi and we speak with scholar Phyllis Bennis. [includes rush transcript]

The funeral of Yasser Arafat is underway. A helicopter carrying the body of the Palestinian leader has landed at in the West Bank headquarters compound in Ramallah where he spent his final years as a virtual prisoner. Tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners swarmed the aircraft and police struggled to hold them back by firing their weapons in the air. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas tried to emerge from the helicopter, but was kept back by the huge crowd.

After his death Thursday, Arafat’s body was flown out of Paris on Thursday on a French government plane. In Cairo, the coffin, accompanied by Arafat’s widow Suha Arafat, was met by the Egyptian president’s wife Suzanne Mubarak and leading officials.

At the United Nations, the General Assembly observed a minute of silence to remember the lifelong Palestinian leader. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later spoke about Yasser Arafat.

  • Kofi Annan,UN Secretary General speaking at the United Nations, November 11, 2004.

In South Africa, former president Nelson Mandela also spoke about Arafat’s death.

  • Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, November 11, 2004.

A private state funeral was held in Cairo today with prayers over Arafat’s coffin in the mosque in a northeastern suburb. Palestinian officials, including Mahmoud Abbas–the new head of the PLO–then greeted leaders from around the world at a carpeted funeral tent. Egypt had agreed to host the funeral in exile because Arab leaders in particular could not travel to the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Among those attending, were Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns were also there. No Israeli officials attended.

The mourners walked behind a horse-drawn gun carriage carrying Arafat’s flag-draped coffin to a nearby airbase. The streets were lined with policeman and closed to the public. The coffin then loaded on an Egyptian military plane and flown to Sinai where a helicopter took Arafat’s body to the West Bank.

Arafat’s body is due to be buried before sunset in the grounds of the Ramallah compound in which he was confined by Israeli forces for more than two-and-a-half years. People worked through the night to prepare the grave.

Israeli troops have gone on their highest security alert in more than two years. The army has closed off towns and cities in the West Bank and will not allow ordinary Palestinians to travel there from the Gaza Strip. Instead, Gaza City will hold its own symbolic funeral service while the West Bank burial takes place.

Palestinians see Arafat’s burial site as temporary. They hope that one day he will be buried at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem–a move rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

  • Amira Howeidy, reporter with Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s oldest English-language newspaper. She attended a separate ceremony open to the public at the Azhar mosque in old Cairo.
  • Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. She is the author of the book "Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis."
  • Kristen Ess, editor of the Palestine News Network. She joins us on the phone from Ramallah.
  • Haidar Abdel Shafi, a veteran Palestinian politician and political leader from Gaza. He has led several Palestinian delegations to peace talks, most prominently at the 1991 Madrid Conference and the subsequent Washington talks. He is also a physician and is head of the Red Cresent in the Gaza Strip. He joins us from Gaza.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan later spoke about Arafat’s death.

KOFI ANNAN: First of all, let me begin by offering my deepest condolence and sympathy to his wife and daughter and to the Palestinian people. Chairman Arafat really embodied the Palestinian aspiration. He had the courage to accept the fact that there will have to be two states, and the Palestinians will live side by side with the Israelis, and he also signed the Oslo Agreement. But now that he is gone, I think the best legacy his people can live for him is to engage constructively and peacefully with the international community and the Israeli government and people to make that dream a dream of two states living side by side in peace and reality, and I would urge that we all get to work and really press for the achievement of that goal.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan speaking at the U.N. on Thursday. In South Africa, former president Nelson Mandela emerged from his home also to talk about Yasser Arafat.

NELSON MANDELA: He was an icon in the proper sense of the word. He was not only concerned with the liberation of the Arab people, but of all the oppressed people throughout the world, Arabs and non-Arabs. And to lose a man of that stature and thinking is a great blow to all those who are fighting against oppression. We regret that, and we give our condolences to his family and to the Arab people, to which he belonged.

REPORTER: What do you think should be done now to achieve peace in the Middle East, especially now that it could be volatile?

NELSON MANDELA: Well, I have no doubt that the Arab leaders in the Middle East have already thought of somebody who should follow President Arafat, and we’ll watch and see what they do, and we’ll support what they do, because they know better as to who is the most competent leader in their area who can look not only after the Arab affairs, but after the affairs of all of the oppressed people in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Former South African president, Nelson Mandela. A private state funeral was held in Cairo today with prayers over Arafat’s coffin in a mosque in the northeastern suburb. Palestinian officials, including Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the P.L.O., then greeted leaders from around the world at a carpeted funeral tent. Egypt had agreed to host the funeral in exile because Arab leaders in particular could not travel to the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Among those attending were Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns were also there. No Israeli officials attended.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The mourners walked behind a horse-drawn carriage carrying Arafat’s flag-draped coffin to a nearby air base. The streets were lined with policemen and closed to the public. The coffin was loaded on an Egyptian military plane and flown to Sinai. From there, a helicopter transported Arafat’s body to the West Bank. The body is due to be buried before sunset on the grounds of the Ramallah compound where Arafat was confined as a virtual prisoner by Israeli forces for more than two-and-a-half years. Palestinians worked through the night to prepare the grave. Israeli troops have gone on their highest security alert in more than two years. They have closed off towns and cities in the West Bank and will not allow ordinary Palestinians to travel there from the Gaza Strip. Instead, Gaza City will hold its own symbolic funeral service while the West Bank burial takes place. Palestinians see Arafat’s burial site as temporary. They hope that one day he will be buried at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a move rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll begin in Cairo with Amira Howeidy, a reporter for Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s oldest English language newspaper. She attended a separate ceremony from the state funeral, this ceremony open to the public at the Azhar mosque in old Cairo. Welcome to Democracy Now!

AMIRA HOWEIDY: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you describe what is happening now in Egypt in response to Yasser Arafat’s death, and the funeral taking place in Cairo, the two separate ceremonies?

AMIRA HOWEIDY: Well, it’s now over, or both funerals are over. Cairo’s streets are back to normal. It’s Friday, an official weekend holiday, and it’s the last Friday in Ramadan. So it’s very, very, very quiet, and everything is over. I think everybody in Egypt who was interested in the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat are glued to the screen, watching the last stage of his burial, which is going to be in Ramallah. Earlier today, there was a ceremony, a popular funeral for Arafat in Azhar mosque which is in Islamic Cairo. It’s in a different area from where the state funeral was held, and it was open to the public, and it was organized or called for by an Egyptian Committee in Solidarity with the Intifada which was formed some three years ago. Unfortunately, there were masses of security forces surrounding the mosque apparently since last night to insure that the masses do not get in or out in order to prevent a situation that would be out of control. That did not happen because we knew about it through mobile messages, because it was decided only yesterday and there was no means for [inaudible] to know about the funeral. So, the people who turned out today were the regular worshippers who go to pray at Azhar, and several hundred political activists, intellectuals, political party representatives and members, and also members of the public, of course. Once the prayers, the Friday — regular Friday prayer was over there was a rally inside al-Azhar mosque, and it would not — the police would not let it exit or leave the mosque into the main street in Azhar. Basically, the worshippers and activists, they joined forces, and they had their demonstration for around an hour, hour-and-a-half, basically supporting the Palestinian cause showing solidarity with the Palestinians, anti-government, anti-Egyptian government slogans, anti-Zionist slogans, slogans criticizing Arab governments and calling them cowards and calling for the liberation of occupied Palestine, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go to break, but when we return, I want to ask about the pressure this may put on the Egyptian leader. Amira Howeidy, a reporter for Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s oldest English language newspaper. This is Democracy Now!, the day of the burial of Yasser Arafat.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Today Yasser Arafat is being buried in Ramallah at his compound where he was held a virtual prisoner for almost three years. His body taken from the military hospital in France, flown to Cairo, where there was a private state funeral, and then taken by helicopter to Ramallah, where tens of thousands of Palestinians were there to greet him. We are talking to — or to be there to honor the Palestinian leader as he is laid to rest. We are talking to Amira Howeidy, reporter with Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s oldest English language newspaper, who attended a separate ceremony that was open to the public in Old Cairo outside of the closed state funeral that world leaders attended. Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Amira, why would the Egyptian government and some other Arab governments be so concerned about popular outpourings within their own country for the death of Arafat?

AMIRA HOWEIDY: Well, because security is always the ultimate priority. Security of the regime, the government, and they always fear that sometimes popular demonstrations would turn into something else, something they cannot control, because there are domestic problems, domestic political problems, and they realize that, and when you are insecure, you try to secure yourself as much as possible. This has happened in the past, for example last year, right before the war, in Egypt — in Cairo’s most central and busiest square, right after the U.S. Invasion began, thousands and thousands and thousands of Caireans poured into the square and they virtually occupied the square. It was totally unexpected. They didn’t think it would be that large. The government activists and the small so-called anti-war movement in Egypt, nobody expected this to happen. We are talking about a big, big city here, we are talking about around 20 million people who live in Cairo. When you allow them to go out there and express themselves, the government probably has a right to feel a bit worried that it could turn into something nasty, something anti-government, because of the poverty, because of the criticism against the government for political corruption, or for controlling political freedom and freedoms in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Howeidy, with Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s oldest English language newspaper. We are also joined here in this country by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, specializes in the middle-East and U.N. issues. Her latest book: Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. Can you talk, Phyllis, about the significance of today?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, we’re hearing a great deal, Amy, about the question of what the Palestinians are going to do, will they use this opportunity, will the Israelis use the opportunity of change with the death of President Arafat, but I think what we’re not hearing enough about is the question of the United States. The issue of whether the post-Arafat era is any different than the Arafat era itself, I think, lies very much in the hands of Washington. Ironically, we’re seeing it only in the words of someone like Brent Scowcroft who wrote this morning in the Washington Post about the need for the United States to take a different posture than it has so far. There is a new opportunity, not because Yasser Arafat was the stumbling block to peace as so many are claiming, but because he was used as an excuse by Israel and accepted as a legitimate excuse by the United States. So, the pretext of Yasser Arafat is no longer available. The question now remains of whether there might be some change, and I must say that so far we have not seen any indication of it, in Washington, within the Bush administration about the significance of international law, the significance of a recognition that rights that are enshrined in international law must be the basis for a peaceful solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, one that’s based on ending occupation and not simply normalizing occupation. The demonization that we have been hearing about Yasser Arafat — the "President of Terror," et cetera, — this sort of language that denies the reality of what Israeli occupation and state terror have meant for so many Palestinians in the region and around the world has really distorted much of the assessment of what comes next. I think that the question that we have to look at is what kinds of pressures are there on the U.S. to move towards a different posture. So far we’re seeing new pressure from Tony Blair, but that seems to come from the pressure on Blair within the Labor Party where he is under enormous criticism for having given his full support to the U.S. war in Iraq, and the notion seems to ride among a number of Labor Party officials that if they can get Blair to talk to President Bush about the need for a greater U.S. initiative in Palestine, that that will somehow compensate for the disaster of having Blair as a full partner in the illegal war in Iraq. As I said, so far we don’t see any indication of such a U.S. change. The decision of the Bush administration to send only William Blair [sic], a mid-level career professional rather than a political high-ranking official to the funeral of Yasser Arafat was an indication of that.

AMY GOODMAN: William Burns.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I was going to ask you precisely about that, Phyllis. If there was going to be an attempt by the Bush Administration to begin a change or a new direction in the continuing peace negotiations, you would think that they would send somebody like Secretary of State Powell because he would have the opportunity immediately at the funeral to begin the kinds of discussions about a new — a new approach now that Arafat was dead, but it almost seems like the Bush administration, by sending a low level person like William Burns, is actually already beginning on a bad foot, it would seem.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You’re absolutely right, Juan. The decision to send William Burns was an unmistakable symbol that this is not being taken as a significant event. There is no recognition of the significance of Arafat’s funeral for the Palestinian people, and for the Arab people as a whole. Compounding that message is the fact that it was Elliot Abrams, one of the leading neo-cons in the Bush administration who was recently appointed as the point man on the Middle East within the National Security Council, who chaired the first meeting that was acknowledged yesterday to examine what should be the administration’s response and what next steps might look like, indicated that there is no interest in a new approach, no interest in seizing what could become a new political moment, if the U.S. was prepared to say to Israel: "It is no longer acceptable to use false excuses for your failure to end the occupation." The U.S. is clearly indicating that it is not prepared to make such a determination.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Amira Howeidy back into this conversation from Cairo. Your response to Phyllis Bennis’ assessment?

AMIRA HOWEIDY: Well, I agree with her. They were of course as could be expected. For example, what she said about the signs and signals sent to us by the U.S. sending a low-level delegation, and Mr. Bush’s statements on Arafat’s death as well. They’re all indicative of the classic policy of the U.S. towards the Palestinians. It’s seems that they are hoping that the new Palestinian leadership would make the concessions that Arafat didn’t make. It is specifically because of the concessions that Arafat didn’t make that there was overwhelming grief here in Cairo, in Egypt and I’m sure in the rest of the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Howeidy, I want to interrupt just for one minute because we have had a very hard time getting through to Ramallah, but we have just reached Kristen Ess on the line in Ramallah, who is a reporter for the website PalestineNet.Org. I want to just get a description of what is happening now, the funeral for Yasser Arafat currently now underway. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kristen.

KRISTEN ESS: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you are watching right now?

KRISTEN ESS: Inside the Mucasa, the President’s offices, there are thousands of people who have crammed through every gate that they could get through, to try to walk with the coffin of Arafat when it was airlifted in from Cairo this afternoon at about — just after 2:00. He arrived in the Mucasa, in Ramallah. It was so crowded they even had a hard time getting the doors of the helicopter open to let it out. People are very emotional. There are — everybody is just trying to get as close to the coffin as they can, and the streets outside of the Mucasa also are full of people, ambulances, anybody who can get by. There’s helicopters that are going over frequently, and all of the shops are closed. All of Ramallah, all of the West Bank, all of Gaza is in seven days of unofficial mourning when all shops will remain closed. For 40 days, the flags will fly at half mast. It’s been a very difficult two-week period for the Palestinian people as the reports of the health of Arafat have come in from France, always a different story for everyone. It’s just been a really hard time for everyone. And at that same time, the Israeli military has continued its invasions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not giving anyone a break.

AMY GOODMAN: And Kristen, what about the presence of the Israeli troops — are they on the outskirts of the town, or are they completely trying to maintain a low profile today?

KRISTEN ESS: What the Israeli troops have done today is close off all of the roads coming to Ramallah today, which are most impossible for most Palestinians who are trying to travel through the West Bank. Of course coming from the Gaza Strip, it’s absolutely 100% impossible, but to get on one road to — through the West Bank, not trying to go inside 48 boundaries or anywhere near any settlements or inside 48, even just to go on the road there are checkpoints about every five minutes on the road. They were holding people from last night, not allowing anybody to pass through, holding people on buses for hours at a time and eventually, letting a few buses go through that had gotten previous permission from the Israelis so it could look like they were letting some people come in. But most of the people that made it here are actually from Ramallah and the surrounding towns; there are a lot of small towns around Ramallah, but most people were not able to make it, and most people had to watch the funeral on television. In different West Bank towns, people are holding demonstrations, vigils, walking through the streets holding flags and signs of the President because they couldn’t make it. Inside Ramallah, I haven’t seen any Israeli soldiers near the Mucasa, and certainly not inside the Mucasa. The idea is similar to what they do prevent people from getting to the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem to pray during Ramadan or at Friday prayers. They just simply close down all of the checkpoints. They don’t let anyone pass and anybody who has managed to get through or any cars that are going through that are deemed Palestinian taxies get pulled over and held — and many people end up being jailed simply for trying to get to prayer services, and so this is a similar tactic they are using to prevent people from making it to the Mucasa to Ramallah for the funeral services today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kristen Ess, reporter for the website PalestineNet.Org. She is in Ramallah right now. The funeral for Yasser Arafat is underway. What about the fact that this is considered by Palestinians to be a temporary resting place? What do you see as the prospects, Kristen, what do people there see as the prospects for Yasser Arafat ultimately to be buried in Jerusalem where he wanted to be?

KRISTEN ESS: As things stand now, of course, any kind of talk with the Israelis to have Arafat buried in Jerusalem haven’t gone well, and the Israelis are adamantly refusing. That’s one of the tactics of the Israeli government that we have seen used time and again to change the facts on the ground in order to wipe out the possibility that Palestinians will be able to once again live freely inside of Jerusalem. More and more every day, we see more Israeli soldiers and police inside East Jerusalem. More Palestinians are being driven out of East Jerusalem, and so to have Yasser Arafat buried there would be something completely in contradiction to what the Israelis are trying to do as we see it happening now. The settlement expansion is going on, and new settlements are being built around Jerusalem. It’s being completely blocked off by the apartheid wall, and — so I haven’t talked to anybody who has seemed hopeful about the prospects of Arafat’s body being moved to Jerusalem. But of course, people still hold it as a hope and an ideal that one day the Palestinians will be free of the Israeli occupation and be able to live once again in their cities and their towns, and that includes Jerusalem, under international law and under the existing resolutions that we have now.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristen Ess is on the line with us from Ramallah where the funeral for Yasser Arafat is underway. We go now to Gaza, to Haider Abdel-Shafi, long-time Palestinian politician, negotiator and leader. Can you describe what’s happening in Gaza today, Haider Abdel Shafi? Can you hear us?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what is happening in Gaza today?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Well, you know, it is the — the atmosphere is loaded with emotions because of the death of the leader, Yasser Arafat. So, people are expressing their feelings, demonstrations and slogans and everything. You can imagine how the people are loaded with emotions at the moment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the reaction of people there in Gaza to the refusal of the Israelis to allow them to travel or participate in the funeral for Arafat?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: I can’t hear you. Please speak a little louder.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the reaction of those in Gaza over the decision of the Israelis not to allow them to travel to the funeral?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Of course, it is a very bad feeling. It is disgust and protest, and they see no reason that the Israelis should prevent the burial of their leader in Jerusalem. And so, the people — the atmosphere is filled with anger and emotion.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the legacy of Yasser Arafat, a controversial figure even among Palestinians.

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Again, please, I didn’t understand.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the legacy of Yasser Arafat? Controversial even among Palestinians.

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Well, Arafat is looked upon as a national leader, and the people — you know also that we, the Arabs are very emotional, and this moment that Arafat dies away from Jerusalem and the position of the Israelis that is very negative — I mean, no response to the feelings of the Palestinians. It is an atmosphere which is loaded with plenty of emotions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the prospects now that the excuses of the Bush administration and of Sharon for saying that they would not deal with the Palestinians as longs as Arafat was the leader, do you think that now there is a potential for this excuse now to be — now it’s gone, do you have any hopes of any change in U.S. or Israeli policy?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: I’m sorry, something is wrong. I cannot understand what you are saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that there — do you think there will be a change in U.S.-Israeli policy now that Arafat is dead?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: Again, please.

AMY GOODMAN: Will there be a change in U.S. or Israeli policy?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: I don’t know why the voice is not clear.

AMY GOODMAN: One more time — do you think there will be a change in Israeli policy?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: What the Palestinians want from Israeli policy?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there will be a change with Arafat’s death?

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: No, I think Arafat’s death is not going to — it only makes the situation more tense and more volatile between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want thank you very much — go ahead, finish your thought.

HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI: It only adds to the escalation of emotions and disappointment, and lessens the prospects of positive changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Haider Abdel Shafi, thank you for joining us, veteran Palestinian politician, political leader from Gaza. He has led several Palestinian delegations to peace talks, most prominently, the 1991 Madrid Conference and the subsequent Washington talks. This is Democracy Now!. This is the day of the burial of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. His funeral was held both in Cairo, Egypt, and then helicoptered in to Ramallah where is he being buried. He has asked before he died, he made it clear that he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. This is Democracy Now!

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