As Palestinian officials report that Yasser Arafat lies in a
coma in a French military hospital outside Paris, a heightened stir
of emotion and concern builds throughout the Middle East and United
States.

Eston Bond
A Palestinian man lights a candle to place it with others around a portrait of leader Yasser Arafat at a makeshift shrine in support of the Palestinian leader in Gaza City yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

For the past 40 years, Arafat has been the leading symbol of
Palestinian identity, said Ron Stockton, a researcher for the
University’s Center for Arab-American Studies. “His
death will produce widespread and sincere grieving,” Stockton
said.

Stockton described Arafat as both a historic and a tragic
figure. “At a time when the Palestinian people were in exile,
confused, disoriented and without an organized leadership, (Arafat)
established a set of structures that brought the Palestinians back
into existence. He is a tragic figure because the very qualities
that enabled him to unite the Palestinian people — his
evasive equivocations and balancing act — made him a poor
negotiator.”

In Arafat’s absence, the Palestinians will face major
leadership changes. Arafat currently holds many titles. Among them,
he is head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a political
and paramilitary organization of Palestinian Arabs dedicated to the
establishment of an independent Palestinian state. He is also
president of the Palestinian Authority, the institution that has a
split governance of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with
Israel.

Determining who should assume Arafat’s positions if he
dies and when and how that would happen are all highly contentious
issues due to current division among Palestinians.

Carmel Salhi, president of Students Allied for Freedom and
Equality, said he feels the best choice for the Palestinian people
is to hold an open election.

But he expressed concern that this will not be possible.
“The current situation, under Israeli occupying forces, makes
setting up an open election very difficult,” Salhi said.
“In addition, Palestinians are looking at the leadership (as
it stands) and taking it upon themselves to decide who should take
control and how much control that person should have.”

SAFE is a group of student activists dedicated to the cause of
justice, freedom and self-determination for the Palestinian people,
the group’s website states.

Stockton said a “power vacuum” has already taken
shape among Palestinian authorities, and he said it may be filled
by a collective leadership. As to whether the United States should
play a role in selecting future governing authorities, Stockton
said, “Even if the U.S. was successful in electing the next
Palestinian leader, that person would be seen as an American agent
and be discredited.”

He added, “President Bush has said he would not work with
the Palestinian Authority until they produced a new leadership.
Ariel Sharon has said something similar. Once that leadership is in
place, we should begin a major push to re-open
negotiations.”

Jessica Risch, co-chair of American Movement for Israel, said it
will be crucial to the well-being of both Palestinians and Israelis
that future Palestinian leaders are elected without influence from
an outside party.

“With Arafat’s death brings the hope that new
Palestinian leadership will mean a partner for peace in the Middle
East and a solution to conflict.” Risch said. “Never
before have the Palestinians had the ability to decide their own
fate, and create the changes necessary for peace. This must be
done, however, by the will of the Palestinians and not by the
Israeli or the American governments.”

AMI is a pro-Israeli student activist group that works to
educate and increase awareness of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Regardless of what changes are made in the Palestinian
government, it is certain Arafat’s death will be felt by many
people on a number of different levels. “A lot of things will
change with (Arafat’s) death — it’s hard to say,
I’m not sure what — but it will have a huge effect on
the situation in the Middle East,” said LSA senior Abby
Hauslohner, a Near-East studies major.

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