RAMALLAH, West Bank — They came by the dozens in dark suits and ties to pay their respects to Yasser Arafat, the legendary leader who epitomized unfulfilled Palestinian dreams of creating an independent nation.
Palestine Liberation Organization leaders who returned with Arafat from decades in exile arrived with wreaths and salutes. Young Palestinian guard politicians who challenged Arafat's heavy-handed rule offered quiet prayers. And the current leadership led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to transform Arafat's vision of Palestinian statehood into reality.
Three years after Arafat's mysterious death in a Paris hospital at the age of 75, Palestinians gathered Saturday to unveil a new, $1.75 million mausoleum for Arafat at the presidential compound.
It was at this drab complex that Arafat established the foundations of the Palestinian Authority in the late 1990s. It was here that Israeli forces effectively imprisoned Arafat during the last years of his life as the second Palestinian uprising raged. And it was here that throngs of anguished Palestinians swarmed the helicopter carrying Arafat's coffin before he was laid to rest on Nov. 12, 2004.
The scenes of chaos and destruction are now gone, replaced Saturday by a somber wreath laying ceremony and a tacit acknowledgement that the political landscape has dramatically shifted since the helicopter brought Arafat's body home for the last time.
In the three years since Arafat's death, Israel razed its Gaza Strip settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's career was cut short by a debilitating stroke, and Arafat's long-dominant Fatah party lost control of the Palestinian Authority for the first time to its hard-line Islamist Hamas rivals. Hamas then routed Fatah forces from Gaza five months ago in a military takeover that created an enduring fissure in Palestinian politics.
"The unity has been lost and it has to be rebuilt," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian lawmaker who tried unsuccessfully to succeed Arafat as president. "For Arafat, division was totally out of the question."
Although many Fatah leaders admit that they lost the respect of the Palestinian people, little has been done by Arafat's political party to reform its image.
The task of rebuilding Fatah and resurrecting peace talks with Israel has been left to Abbas, Arafat's longtime political rival and successor as Palestinian Authority president.
Abbas, 72, is leading renewed negotiations with Israel that could lead to the most promising peace talks since Arafat walked away from the 2000 Camp David summit. Collapse of the Camp David summit helped spark the second Palestinian uprising, derailed peace talks for years and led to the international isolation of Arafat.
On Saturday, Abbas vowed to fulfill Arafat's dream of one day being buried in Jerusalem.
To signify the temporary nature of Arafat's resting place, the mausoleum is
surrounded on three sides by tiled pools of water to suggest that it is floating. Verses from the Koran adorn the mausoleum walls made of tan Jerusalem stone and glass.
Across from the mausoleum, a 90-foot-tall modern minaret rises above a mosque. Designers installed a laser at the top of the minaret that will shine its light towards Jerusalem as a symbol of Palestinian hopes that the holy city will one day become the capital of Palestine.
To this day, Arafat's death remains clouded by secrecy and tainted by conspiracy theories. Palestinian leaders have long argued that Arafat was poisoned by Israeli assassins. Arafat detractors suggested that the Palestinian president died of AIDS.
A year after Arafat's death, a New York Times analysis of the Palestinian leader's medical records cast doubt on both claims. Instead, the paper concluded that Arafat died of a stroke caused by a still-unidentified infection — a finding that has done little to dispel the competing theories.