RAMALLAH - Ramallah moves to the slow and heavy rhythm of any Muslim town in
the Middle East during the fasting month of Ramadan.
The only sign of anything amiss with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is the
permanent vigil that the world press holds outside his ruined headquarters,
the Muqata, where he was effectively kept locked up by the Israelis for more
than two-and-a-half years.
And in the evening on a large screen in the city center, Palestinian television
shows scenes from the career of the veteran leader now said to be fighting for
his life in a hospital near Paris.
The confusion surrounding the fate of Arafat, all the contradictory statements
surrounding his condition, including reports that he is on life support and
brain dead, may have served to diffuse some of the immediate emotions that Palestinians
are bound to feel at this moment in history.
The official line of the leadership that gathers daily in continuous emergency
sessions inside the Muqata is that Arafat is gravely ill, fighting for his life,
in a reversible coma. They have asked everybody to show restraint in speculation
surrounding his health.
Minister Kadoura Fares in a rare moment of candor lets the mask slip. "If
anybody insists on keeping him alive, it is because they fear the reaction of
the people, who were even reluctant to hear that he was ill, let alone dead."
He quickly corrects himself to say that he has no firm information on the exact
state of Arafat's health and that rumors of his death are probably spread by
Israel "to create chaos and panic."
Chaos and panic is just what a lot of people fear in the Palestinian areas
after Arafat. It is widely believed now that the leader is on life support and
that he will not be allowed to die until the politicians in Ramallah are confident
they can control the situation and no factional infighting will take place.
Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was due to consult "all the Palestinian factions"
including the militant movements Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. For the time being
he is emerging as a central figure in the Palestinian Authority. But former
prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has taken over the running of the Fatah movement
and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
One of the most difficult issues may turn out to be burial for the Palestinian
leader. Arafat is said to have expressed the wish to be buried inside the al-Aqsa
compound on the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem.
This is, of course, a politically explosive request. It is the site at the
symbolic center of the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, and it
is where the latest Intifada uprising was sparked four years ago.
Israel is adamant that Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem. It has security
concerns arising from thousands of Palestinians marching on Jerusalem for the
funeral, as well as political ones. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as
its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their
"Jerusalem is the place where we bury Jewish kings, not Palestinian terrorists,"
said Israeli Justice Minister Yoseph Lapid in a statement that will only fuel
But many in Ramallah are not very concerned about the personal fate of Arafat,
let alone his burial site. From simple office workers to rich businessmen, there
is a lot of ambivalence about the veteran leader.
The Friday prayers at the central Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque in Ramallah offered
a clue. "What about a prayer for our leader," one lone voice arose
toward the end of the service in the mosque that was overflowing with people.
Once outside, a group of men argued heatedly about the omission. "It is
shameful, the sheikh did not mention even one word about the president,"
said one. It is not uncommon in Muslim countries to offer prayers for ailing
leaders, or at least mention concern for their health in the Friday sermon.
But one man, sporting the beard of someone who identifies himself with the
Muslim movement, was blunt in his disdain for the leader. "I think the
sheikh did the right thing," he said. "Arafat doesn't mean anything
to me, I did not agree with his policies, even before he signed the Oslo accords."
In the evening, when all of Ramallah comes into the street to shop for the
approaching feast at the end of fasting, some people expressed sympathy for
the ailing leader.
"I feel sorry for him but I think people don't really pay attention any
more because of all the confusing reports," said Um Munir, who was out
shopping for clothes with her four children.
Nisreen Lubadeh who works for the Palestinian Authority had a very different
take. "People either don't care or don't like him and are even relieved,"
she said. "As for me, the only thing that I was hoping, unrealistically
probably, is that after him we will get better leaders."
In the upmarket restaurant Darna, businessman Sam Bahour is having an iftar
meal to break the fast. He had a more nuanced approach to the illness of the
"I don't want to tie the whole future of a people to one man," he
said. "A lot of people feel sad because he is our leader and we went through
a lot together. But I do hope we develop the institutions and the mechanisms
to achieve stability, regardless of who leads us."