Palestinians Look for Change in Israel after Arafat's Death

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Ramallah ( - Following the death of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat Palestinians are looking for a change in Israeli policy, a Palestinian Authority minister said on Thursday. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the first step in a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still the cessation of terrorism.

Meanwhile, international leaders are hailing Arafat, whom some have called the "godfather" of modern terrorism, as a great leader of his people and are sending wishes for Palestinian peace. Arafat, 75, was pronounced dead at a Paris military hospital early Thursday.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan al-Khatib said the world had lost a great peacemaker when Arafat died. "My reaction is similar to the reaction of the vast majority of the Palestinian people and the peace lovers in the region and in the world, that this is a great loss to the Palestinians and to the cause of peace," al-Khatib told

Arafat wielded "huge political weight" within Palestinian society, and now that he is gone there may be a "shift in the balance of powers," al-Khatib said. Arafat belonged to what he called the "peace camp" which favored a negotiated settlement with Israel based on international resolutions, while others, whom he did not name, do not.

"It's a big responsibility on the successors of Yasser Arafat to be able to maintain the unity of the Palestinian people," al-Khatib said. Nevertheless, he said, the PA was hoping to be able to maintain cohesion and stability, but he put the onus on Israel and the international community.

"If Israel will continue refusing to be involved in a peace process that is about ending the occupation, then such a position and such practices are going to continue playing to the hand of the opposition in the Palestinian side," al-Khatib said.

"If the international community and the Arab world will continue to refrain from providing the Palestinian Authority with the necessary economic and financial and technical support in order to remain able to provide the Palestinian public with the necessary services, then again the PA will be further weakened, and that will also play to the hand of the opposition," al-Khatib said.

"Israel has been marginalizing the Palestinian Authority and narrowing the space for the Palestinian Authority, political, economic, security space. If this will continue then the Palestinian Authority will continue its move towards collapse," al-Khatib added.

Israel declared Arafat an "obstacle" to reconciliation last year. It had accused the Palestinian leader of being behind a more than four-year campaign of terrorism and violence.

President Bush also sidelined Arafat, refusing to invite him to the White House or meet him until Arafat made a concerted effort to dismantle the terrorism infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Without mentioning Arafat's name, Sharon said that while recent events likely constituted "a turning point in Middle Eastern history," it was up to the Palestinians to realize that they had to combat terror.

"Israel, which is a peace-seeking country, will - of course - continue with its efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians without delay," Sharon said prior to a meeting with Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini in Jerusalem.

"I hope that the new Palestinian leadership that will arise will understand that progress in relations and in the resolution of problems depends - first and foremost - on the cessation of terrorism and their fighting terrorism," Sharon said.

In eulogizing Arafat, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said he "hated" Arafat "for the deaths of Israelis...[and] for not allowing the peace move forward."

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, with whom Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said it was a pity that Arafat had turned to terror.

"There is no doubt that with the death of Yasser Arafat an era has ended...for good or bad," Peres said in a radio interview.

"The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace," Peres said.

Three days of mourning

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where he was not always welcomed with open arms, Arafat was praised for being a great leader of his people.

Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, which rejects any negotiated settlement with Israel, said that his group was filled with "great sorrow and pain" for the death of Arafat, whom he called "the brother, the symbol."

Mashaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt by poisoning several years ago, accused Israel of having done the same to Arafat, although doctors already ruled that out as a cause of his death.

"I hold Israel responsible for the crime of the death of Arafat ... All reports by doctors in the last two weeks indicate he was poisoned," Mashaal told the Al Jazeera satellite television.

Nafez Azzam, a senior Islamic Jihad leader was quoted as saying that Arafat's death was "the most painful news for us as Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and all free people in the world."

Jordan's Prime Minister Faisal Al Fayez declared three days of mourning, during which time flags will be flown at half mast, a statement published on the government Petra news agency said. Thursday was also declared a public holiday in Jordan, where half the population is Palestinian.

Syria also said it would observe three days of national mourning. Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah said that the Palestinians and Arab nation had "lost a great national leader who left his fingerprints on the Middle East region."

International figure

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Arafat as "an influential political figure on an international scale."

Chinese President Hu Jintao called Arafat "a brilliant leader" and "a great friend" of China.

In a condolence telegram from the Vatican, Pope John Paul said he entrusted Arafat's soul to God and prayed that, "the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land."

The European Union praised Arafat for what Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot called his "single-minded commitment" to the Palestinian cause. Bot, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the EU would work with the Palestinians and international community to realize "the aspirations of the Palestinian people."

Calling him a "man of courage and conviction," French President Jacques Chirac said Arafat had "for 40 years incarnated the Palestinians' fight for recognition of their national rights."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Arafat had symbolized the Palestinian national movement and had "led his people to a historic acceptance and the need for a two-state solution."

President George W. Bush's response was the most reserved.

"The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history," Bush said in a statement.

Bush wished the Palestinians "peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors." He also encouraged the international community to help them achieve these goals.

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