RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dedicated Yasser Arafat’s sleek new glass-and-stone mausoleum in a pomp-filled ceremony Saturday, tapping into his iconic predecessor’s continued popularity as he heads into high-stakes peace negotiations with Israel.
Abbas aides, meanwhile, reported new difficulties in preparations for a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference later this month. Abbas called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain that Israel backed away from a promise to accept U.S. monitoring of its initial peace obligations, officials said. Israel declined comment.
Saturday’s dedication of the mausoleum, on the third anniversary of Arafat’s death, was meant to boost Abbas’ legitimacy at a time when he faces a stiff challenge from the rival Hamas. The Islamic militant group, which violently seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ security forces in June, maintains Abbas does not have a mandate to negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. However, Hamas never dared criticize Arafat’s policies, including his involvement in peace talks, after his Nov. 11, 2004, death, instead embracing him as a national symbol. In Gaza, an Arafat memorial rally on Monday is expected to draw the largest crowd of supporters of Abbas’ Fatah movement since the June takeover. On Saturday, Fatah supporters held several marches in Gaza, and Hamas police did not intervene.
In unveiling the mausoleum, Abbas said he would press ahead with Arafat’s quest for statehood. “We are continuing the path, continuing the pledge, to establish an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, God willing,” said Abbas.
Flanked by an honor guard, Abbas laid a wreath in the colors of the Palestinian flag on Arafat’s grave and paid tribute with a moment of silence.
Arafat died at 75 in a French military hospital, after spending his final years under Israeli siege at his West Bank headquarters. The exact cause of death remains unknown, fueling persistent rumors that he was poisoned or died of AIDS. Israel has denied involvement in his death.
The mausoleum, made of glass and beige Jerusalem stone, is surrounded on three sides by water, and a piece of rail track is entombed underneath Arafat’s grave. The water and piece of track are meant to symbolize the temporary nature of the burial site, officials said, with Palestinians planning to rebury their former leader one day in Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital.
The mausoleum, measuring 11 meters by 11 meters (120 square feet) to mark the date of Arafat’s death, is located in his walled West Bank compound, or “Mukataa,” now used by Abbas.
A mosque has been built next to the tomb, with a laser beam from the minaret pointing to Jerusalem, and an Arafat museum is to open at the site next year. The memorial complex will cost $1.75 million (¤1.2 million), paid for by public funds, said Mohammed Ishtayeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, which oversees the project.
On Sunday, tens of thousands are expected at the Mukataa to mark Arafat’s death, followed by the Gaza rally on Monday. Spreading out the commemorations over three days also appeared part of the attempt to harness Arafat’s legacy for Abbas’ upcoming challenges.
Palestinian officials said Saturday that pre-conference talks with Israel have hit a rough patch. Negotiators have been trying to write a joint document that is to serve as a basis for the Mideast conference, to be held in late November in Annapolis, Maryland.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday that the two sides haven’t progressed beyond the preamble, and many disagreements remain.
In addition, the two sides are trying to agree on how to implement short-term peace obligations in the first phase of the “road map” peace plan, which was dormant for four years but is now being revived. Under the plan, Israel must immediately freeze settlement construction and dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts, while Palestinians have to disarm militants and round up illegal weapons.
Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that during her latest Mideast trip earlier this week, Rice secured support for setting up a committee of top Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials to monitor implementation of these obligations.
The Palestinian officials said Israel has since backed off the idea of the oversight committee, in which the U.S. would be the final arbiter of disputes. Abbas called Rice on Friday to complain, the officials said. Israeli officials declined comment.
The Palestinians maintain they have started meeting their road map obligations, including a crackdown on militants, but that Israel has done nothing so far. Israel says the Palestinians haven’t done enough to rein in militants.
On Saturday, Palestinian police in the West Bank city of Nablus said they have seized 40 homemade bombs from houses in a downtown area long controlled by militants that police hadn’t dared to enter for years. Earlier in the week, Palestinian police battled militants loyal to Abbas in the nearby Balata refugee camp in their first major offensive against West Bank gunmen.
In other news, Palestinian medical officials recovered the bodies of two men shot and killed Friday night near a security fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. The Israeli military said troops shot the men because they appeared to be planting an explosive device. The men, aged 18 and 19, were found in civilian clothing, and were not identified by militant groups, however, suggesting they might have been civilians.