Palestinians Look to the Future, While Remembering Arafat

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

Ramallah ( - As Palestinians elected a new leader on Sunday, it was clear that Yasser Arafat, the only leader many of them have ever known, has not been forgotten.

Pictures of a younger, smiling Arafat were plastered on walls all over Ramallah, and Palestinians took advantage of an election-day holiday to visit Arafat's tomb.

Ramez El Titi and his wife Hali voted in the West Bank city of Nablus where they live, then brought their four children to the Mukata compound to visit Arafat's tomb.

"The new president [will] have a lot of challenges. First of all, we have the national unity [issue]. This is a very critical issue and also the negotiations with the Israelis," said Titi.

Titi said he backed calls by Abbas for an end to violence. But he said he brought his children to see Arafat's tomb because of the late leader's historical importance to the Palestinian people.

"I think there is a need for the future of our children to live a peaceful in other countries in the world," said Titi, a water expert who works for German Technical Cooperation.

"Mr. Arafat was our historical leader and my children were eager to see [the tomb], because we didn't have the opportunity to be at the funeral. I promised to take them to see the's now a day when I could do this," he said.

"Everyone respects him - those who are against him and those who are with him, all of them, because he spent 40 years [in] the struggle for the Palestinian state and he paid [for it with] his life," he said.

But Titi is not expecting a quick turnaround. When his oldest son Ghazi can vote in about six years, he said, "maybe" the situation would be better. Still he pointed to names of his daughters as a sign of the hope he has for the future generation - in Arabic they mean Cheerful, Prosperity and Calm.

A steady stream of visitors - official and unofficial - gathered on this brisk, sunny Sunday at Arafat's tomb.

The tomb - now enclosed by plexiglass - was covered with dozens of flower wreaths left by various mourners. The foreign minister of Argentina paid his respects on Sunday.

PA Minister Saeb Erekat and legislator Hanan Ashrawi separately visited the tomb in the courtyard of the compound where Arafat was kept a virtual captive by Israel for most of the last three years before his death.

Erekat, who had voted in his hometown of Jericho said he believes the Palestinian elections sent a message to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"The problem is not with Palestinian democracy -- the problem is with Israeli occupation. Occupation and democracy are two parallels that cannot meet and cannot co-exist," Erekat said.

The Palestinians are willing to meet all their road map peace plan obligations "in parallel" with Israel, he said.

"We have to resume a meaningful peace process and put an end to the occupation," Erekat said. "At the same time, we call on the Israeli government to abandon unilateralism, settlements and walls and join us back at the negotiating table so that we can implement the road map in a peaceful way -- in a way that will be devoid of violence."

"There will be enormous challenges to the new president because of the heightened expectations," Palestinian legislator Ashrawi said.

"They expect him, at the same time, to produce peace and safeguard Palestinian rights. And of course, since not all things are under the control of who will be elected, there will be serious drawbacks since Israel and the U.S. are not serious partners for peace yet," she said.

Unlikely visitors

The most unlikely visitors at Arafat's tomb on Sunday were a handful of rabbis from the Neturei Karta sect - a small Jewish religious fringe group that opposes the establishment of the state of Israel until the Messiah comes.

One of the rabbis, Moshe Hirsh, is considered the Minister for Jewish affairs by the PA.

Speaking in Arabic at Arafat's tomb in what they called the "holy Mukata," they eulogized the late Palestinian leader as the commander of the Palestinian forces and the founder of an independent Palestinian state.

Dressed in long robes, black hats, beards and side curls, the rabbis carried Palestinian flags and posters of Arafat decrying the Zionism - the Jewish national movement - and Jewish people who believe in it.

The rabbis came to Ramallah after they were refused the right to vote in the Palestinian elections in Jerusalem where they live. They were similarly refused at the Mukata polling station.

"We're very disappointed that they don't let us to participate. However, we accept the Palestinian rules because we consider the Palestinian parliament as our leaders and our parliament," said one of the rabbis.

Hailing the Palestinians as their brothers, the rabbi denounced Israel and said they not only endorsed a Palestinian state encompassing all of Israel - they also want to live in such a state.

One of the rabbis said he would bless whomever wins the Palestinian elections. He expressed hope that the new leader will successfully "lead the Palestinians in peace and sovereignty and with a good economy, and that we should be at peace between the two people under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian state."

Ahmed Musa, an election worker at the Mukata polling station, said he thought the rabbis' visit was a bit strange, but Khaled Amri saw it as a sign of the future.

"It's a little funny," said Amri in Hebrew. "But...I see co-existence, joint life between two peoples. This is possible. This is an example of co-existence between two people."

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