The Palestine Right to Return Coalition and Connecticut United for Peace hosted a memorial for Yasser Arafat yesterday at the New Haven People’s Center.
More than 40 people, some accompanied by their children, attended the event, which included a slide show of Arafat’s life and an open forum about the current situation in the Middle East. Several attendees expressed disappointment in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and showed support for Arafat’s plans for peace.
Ali Antar, who traveled from Bristol to attend the memorial, said he hopes the future Palestinian leaders will continue Arafat’s work.
“We are here to wish for mercy on Arafat’s soul, and that the leaders of the Palestinians will continue to keep everyone together,” Antar said.
Both adults and children were wearing black-and-white checkered Kaffiyahs, large scarves that have become symbolic of Arafat himself. Maps of Israel and pictures of Arafat were posted around the room and unsweetened Arabic coffee was served, the traditional drink for a memorial service.
Audience members applauded Arafat’s efforts to unite Palestinians and citizens of Arab nations. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of Cytogenic services at the Yale School of Medicine, said the number and diversity of people who attended Arafat’s funeral speaks to his widespread support.
“I challenge you to see when Bush or Sharon die, if 260,000 people will risk their lives to see their funeral,” Qumsiyeh, who helped coordinate the event, said.
Arafat was the co-founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organizaton and had served as its chairman since 1969. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his work with the late Yitzak Rabin. Henry Lowendorf said he was disappointed that Arafat could not complete his work.
“What saddens me is that Arafat never got to see a united Palestine,” Lowendorf said.
Richard Leiter ’06, co-president of Yale Friends of Israel, did not attend the vigil but said Arafat was actually a barrier to the peace process.
“When a leader like that dies, people tend to forget some of the other things they did, like at least tacitly funding terror through his groups,” he said.
Leiter said only time will tell what impact Arafat’s death has on the Middle East. Regardless, he said the United States will have to place an active role in restoring peace.
“I’d like to see the Bush administration take a more active approach [in] promoting peace,” he said.
But several of the vigil attendees criticized American foreign policy in the Middle East, arguing that Palestinians have often been marginalized. Antar said the appointment of Condoleezza Rice to Secretary of State will not help the situation.
Qumsiyeh said that the greatest obstacle to peace is that American citizens are not seeing both sides of the story.
“The only way to move forward is for the people to wake up and see what our government is doing,” he said. “They know there is a fountain of oil there, and they want to keep these countries apart no matter the cost.”
But Qumsiyeh said he does not foresee a civil war in the near future and that a new leader will be chosen democratically.
Other members of the audience spoke about the denial of human rights to Palestinians and the lack of cooperation from the United Nations. Alfred Marder, member of the U.S. Peace Council, said he felt the location for the memorial was appropriate. Marder said the mission of the center is based on bringing people from all different backgrounds together to foster a mutual understanding.
This coming Saturday, the coalition will join an anti-war protest at the student center at Central Connecticut State University, where Qumsiyeh said he expects between 200 and 300 people to attend.