The white stone building being constructed in the heart of Ramallah is elegant and physically imposing. A peaceful air fills its chambers, and spreads through the surrounding gardens.In other words, the near-finished mausoleum for Yasser Arafat is nothing like the short, combative man who will be laid to rest there.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are expected to gather next weekend inside the Muqataa presidential compound - the complex where Mr. Arafat spent most of the final two years of his life before he died of a mysterious illness on Nov. 11, 2004 - for the official opening of the mausoleum. It also marks the beginning of a new process of mythologizing Mr. Arafat and his long reign at the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Three years after his death, he is even more popular among Palestinians than he was in life. Across the West Bank, and increasingly even in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, his image can be seen spray-painted on walls, hanging in shop windows and emblazoned on T-shirts. His tumultuous and conflict-filled time as the internationally recognized face of the Palestinian cause is now eulogized as a golden era when Palestinians came closest to fulfilling their dream of an independent state.
With their people more divided than ever, many long for the unity that Mr. Arafat's strong hand provided. The common belief is that Mr. Arafat would somehow have avoided this summer's open warfare between his Fatah faction and the Islamist Hamas movement, fighting that left Fatah in control of the West Bank and Hamas ruling Gaza.
Mr. Arafat kept firm control of the Palestinian political scene through alternating between tolerating Hamas and cracking down on it.
"People view him much, much, much better than when he was alive. I can't exaggerate how much," said Jamil Rabah, a pollster with the Ramallah-based firm Near East Consulting. "Even those who were against Arafat, who were ardent enemies of Arafat, say 'I wish he was here.' "
Next Saturday, at a ceremony attended by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and dignitaries from around the Arab and Muslim world, Mr. Arafat's remains will transferred from their current resting place - a simple brick-covered tomb near the entrance to the Muqataa - to the gleaming new mausoleum. Symbolically, he will be laid beneath the white Jerusalem limestone imported from the city he dreamed of "liberating." The mausoleum will be surrounded by a 184-square-metre pool of still water and a sprawling garden of olive trees, geraniums and bougainvillea.
"It's a very simple mausoleum, which reflects the simple character of Yasser Arafat. He was a very humble man who served his nation," said Mohammed Shtayeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government arm that managed the $1.7-million project.
An adjacent mosque to be dedicated to Mr. Arafat features a minaret topped by a laser beam that will point toward Jerusalem, the city he claimed as the capital of a Palestinian state. At a later date, a Yasser Arafat museum will be added to the site.
To admirers who have been inside, it's a fitting monument to a national hero. "It's like being inside paradise," said Ayman Qalalweh, a 24-year-old member of Mr. Abbas's elite security services who was assigned to stand guard over Mr. Arafat's tomb. "He is gone, but I feel his soul is with me."
But the mausoleum will likely seem jarringly serene to others who remember Mr. Arafat as a lifelong warrior who first led his Fatah guerrillas into wars against the governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, then reversed to become a peacemaker before launching another violent intifada against Israel after negotiations failed to bring about a Palestinian state. Condemned as a "terrorist" by Israel and the United States, he spent the last two years of his life confined to the Muqataa by Israeli troops.
The question of whether to lay a wreath at Mr. Arafat's tomb has haunted foreign dignitaries since his death. Former foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew was attacked by Israel supporters for laying a wreath there in 2005 and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walks briskly by without pausing when she visits the Muqataa to see Mr. Abbas. Now that Mr. Arafat's status as a national symbol is being elevated yet again, the question of whether and how to pay respects is likely to haunt all official visitors to Ramallah even more.
A week from tomorrow, the third anniversary of his death, the mausoleum will be opened to the general public. About 30,000 people are expected to file through on the first day.
Though supposedly a national holiday, Mr. Shtayeh acknowledged it is also intended to help bolster the popularity of the uncharismatic Mr. Abbas, whom Palestinians perceive as weak and indecisive compared with his predecessor.
Having lost control of Gaza, and now in the midst of negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that may come to define his presidency, Mr. Abbas needs the boost.
While Mr. Arafat is demonized in Israel and much of the West for walking away from then-Israeli-prime-minister Ehud Barak's "best offer" at the Camp David peace talks in 2000, that decision has become increasingly popular with Palestinians. Many worry that Mr. Abbas will accept something less than Mr. Arafat's demand that all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the areas occupied by Israel since 1967, be part of an eventual Palestinian state.
"People feel that Mr. Arafat made a lot of mistakes, but they realize now that he did not sell out the cause [at Camp David], that he was true to the Palestinian dream," Mr. Rabah, the pollster, said.
But the transfer of Mr. Arafat's remains from one "temporary" tomb to another in Ramallah - rather than the burial in Jerusalem that he always desired - is testament to the fact he never accomplished his goals, that the dream is still only just that.
"It's temporary for him to be in Ramallah, it's only until we reach Jerusalem," Mr. Shtayeh said, repeating a mantra Mr. Arafat helped drill into the minds of millions of Palestinians.
"But in the end, this is where he died [although he passed away in Paris, his compound was where he spent his declining years]." ( TGM )