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Palestinians Mourn Death of Yasser Arafat; Israelis Step Up Security


Palestinians mourn the death of their leader, Yasser Arafat, prepare for his burial in the West Bank city, Ramallah, and move ahead with political transition. At the same time, Israel has stepped up security and sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to avert unrest.

Palestinian radio and television carried readings from the Muslim holy book the Koran.

At Mr. Arafat's compound in Ramallah, security guards were seen wiping away tears, flags were lowered to half-staff and workmen were preparing the Muquata compound for Mr. Arafat's burial there.

In Ramallah, Palestinian journalist Nabhan Kreishi described the scene, earlier Thursday. "The people in the streets are sad and looking to the gates of the Muqata [Arafat's compound]. People are coming. They are chanting with tears and sadness," he said. "They cannot believe their leader is gone."

In Gaza, Palestinians took to the streets, early Thursday, to demonstrate their grief. Many carried Palestinian flags and pictures of their long-time leader. Others waved black-and-white checkered headscarves -- long an Arafat trademark. Others fired guns into the air.

Even though the news of Mr. Arafat's death came as no great surprise -- he had been seriously ill for two weeks and in a coma for a full week -- a sense of grief prevailed.

"He gathered the Palestinian people," said Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "He united them and kept the national identity alive. " He's the one who began the peace process."

For Palestinians, Yasser Arafat remains a hero -- the father of a nation they hope to build. For many Israelis, however, he was a supporter of terrorism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Mr. Arafat's death could bring about an "historic turning point for the Middle East." Mr. Sharon said Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue efforts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. He says the new Palestinian leadership must work toward stopping terrorism.

Israeli opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres knew Yasser Arafat throughout many years. The two men shared the Nobel Peace Prize with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for concluding the Oslo Peace agreements in 1993.

Mr. Peres told Israel Radio Mr. Arafat's death marks the end of an era. He says Mr. Arafat's biggest achievements were when he turned to peace and his worst mistakes were made when he turned to terror.

In the meantime, Israelis are preparing for possible unrest -- stepping up security and enforcing a closure of Palestinian areas.

Palestinian leaders have called for calm, unity and an orderly transition of power. That transition is underway with former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas taking over the most powerful job as leaders of the P.L.O. (Palestine Liberation Organization), the organization Yasser Arafat headed until his death. Parliament speaker Rawhi Fattouh was quickly sworn in as interim president and Palestinian hardliner Farouk Kaddoumi was named head of Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization.

The almost-daily violence that has characterized the past four years continues. Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian militant in the Gaza Strip. And, some Palestinian militants have vowed to take revenge for Mr. Arafat's death by stepping up attacks against Israeli targets.