‘He deserves more than this’

Palestinians mark 10th anniversary of Arafat’s death amid high tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Many believe the Palestinian division would not have been possible under Arafat's rule [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]

Nablus, West Bank – Atop Mount Gerizim, a crisp breeze provides some relief on an unusually hot November day. The site is renowned for the small, ancient Samaritan community that lives here, and for the palatial home of Munib al-Masri, a renowned Palestinian business mogul and philanthropist.

This week, as Palestinians commemorated 10 years since the passing of Yasser Arafat, the hilltop also became home to a new mosque named after the late Palestinian leader. The opening of the mosque, built with the support of Masri, once a close Arafat confidante, was attended by members of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which the former guerrilla fighter headed for more than three decades.

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Arafat – who also led the Palestinian Authority (PA) and founded Fatah – died under mysterious circumstances in Paris in 2004, after falling ill while under Israeli military siege in his compound. In the last few years, there has been renewed interest in Arafat’s death, and allegations he was murdered by polonium poisoning . Subsequent tests have revealed conflicting results.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected in his place in 2005, and just two years into his presidency, Hamas beat his ruling party, Fatah, in parliamentary elections throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But election results were not respected and factional violence erupted in Gaza, ultimately leading to Fatah’s ouster. Political turmoil ensued, and the Palestinian territories were eventually divided, with Hamas controlling the strip and the Fatah-dominated PA ruling the West Bank.

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At “Martyr Yasser Arafat Mosque” in Nablus, officials in suits, and women, who did not cover their hair as is customary, listened to statements by the late leader’s old comrades. With its brightly coloured lanterns and decorative interior, the place of worship was closer in aesthetic to Turkey’s Blue Mosque than to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa, which Arafat spoke so passionately about throughout his life.

In attendance was al-Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Arafat aide who was tasked with informing the media in Ramallah in November 2004 that the leader was suffering from a brain haemorrhage. He spoke fondly of the man, whom he called an icon of Palestinian national identity.

God-willing, at the earliest convenience, Arafat's shrine will be moved to Jerusalem, to remain in the heart of the city. He deserves more than this.

by - Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President

But even here, some 50km from the Holy City, the topic of Jerusalem was ever present. Tensions have been running high ever since a Palestinian teen was burned alive by Israelis in July , in an apparent revenge attack for the murder of three Jewish settlers near a West Bank settlement.

“Settlement-building is ongoing and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem is under attack, so that, like al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, it is eventually divided,” Abdel Rahim said. “The Israeli occupation has also succeeded in severing our communities geographically.”

But it is not just geography that is isolating Palestinians from one another.

On a political level, they are far from presenting a united front, despite a lengthy reconciliation process that has spanned seven years. In April, a national consensus government was finally formed with the blessing of the feuding parties, Hamas and Fatah.

But it was not long before proverbial jabs were exchanged and tensions soared. Throughout the Gaza war, Abbas accused Hamas of needlessly prolonging the conflict with Israel for political gain.

The Islamist party, meanwhile, said the PA was complicit in the controversial Gaza reconstruction plan, which, inked with Israel under UN auspices, has yet to benefit the tens of thousands of Palestinians still homeless in the strip.

Last week, the homes and cars of high-ranking Fatah officials in Gaza were targeted by a series of coordinated blasts. Though no injuries were reported, an Arafat memorial ceremony due to take place within a few days was ultimately cancelled after Hamas, which still effectively rules the strip, said it could not provide security for attendants.

If held, the rally would have been the first time that Fatah commemorated the event in Gaza since 2007 – the year Hamas seized power.

RELATED: Arafat exhumation comes at tense time for PA

“This cancellation is another milestone in the deterioration of relations between the two factions,” said Talal Okal, a Gaza-based political analyst. “This may torpedo whatever hope we have left for the reconciliation process, and it will affect things like the Gaza reconstruction process, which the PA is effectively in charge of.”

Despite the charged rhetoric, however, some still believe that bridging the inter-Palestinian schism is possible.

“Hamas is a part of the national fabric and a fundamental actor in the region,” said Jibril al-Rajoub, a senior Fatah official. “And we have to make reconciliation with them based on [our adherence to] the two-state solution, and our commitment to build a democratic society where we have one gun, one law.”

Many believe that this Palestinian division would not have been possible under Arafat’s rule. But while the Oslo Peace Accords – signed by the Palestinian leader in 1993 – were a welcome relief, following decades of fighting, they also planted the seeds for Palestinian disconnection.

Under its dictates, Gaza ultimately became severed from the West Bank, which itself was divided into Areas A, B, and C, falling under different degrees of administrative and security control.

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East Jerusalem also became encircled by a series of concrete slabs and fences that separated it from its Arab hinterland in Ramallah, and the rest of the West Bank.

Over the past year, right-wing Israeli parliamentarians have been calling for increasing sovereignty over the al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), which houses al-Aqsa. Some have even drafted a bill to allow Jewish prayer on the esplanade.

This is only one of a series of explosive developments that have brought anger and violence in the city to the fore, which is why it may be difficult to believe that what Abbas told Palestinians on Sunday is attainable.

“God-willing, at the earliest convenience, Arafat’s shrine will be moved to Jerusalem, to remain in the heart of the city,” Abbas said during the inauguration of the Arafat museum in Ramallah. “He deserves more than this.”

In 2004, Arafat’s family had wanted him buried in Jerusalem, but the Israeli government denied its request. Back then, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Arafat’s grave in Ramallah was only temporary.

“One day, we will have our own independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Erekat said . Ten years later, Palestinians are still waiting for these promises to be fulfilled.

Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @dalia_hatuqa 

Source: Al Jazeera