RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Bulldozers and dump trucks cleared rubble Wednesday for Yasser Arafat’s burial at his battered headquarters – a symbol of Palestinian resistance where he spent his last years in virtual imprisonment.

At a hastily called meeting, Palestinian leaders tried to smooth over any conflict over succession, agreeing to stick to the law and let the little-known parliament speaker become caretaker head of the Palestinian Authority.

The speaker, Rauhi Fattouh, has no political following, and many Palestinians felt he would not be up to the job, even for the 60 days provided by law. However, they set aside their misgivings to send a signal of unity.

Palestinian officials also decided to hold Arafat’s funeral service in Egypt, a more secure and politically convenient location for Arab leaders than the West Bank, followed by his burial in Ramallah.

Palestinian officials had initially insisted Arafat be buried in Jerusalem, which Israel immediately rejected. Both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital, and Israel fears burying the leader of the Palestinian movement there would strengthen Palestinian claims to the city.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had favored a Gaza burial, but agreed Wednesday to let Arafat be buried at his Ramallah compound, known as the Muqata, just a few miles from Jerusalem.

Arafat had been a virtual prisoner in the compound, partially destroyed by Israeli raids, for nearly three years, fearing Israel would carry out its threats to expel him if he left.

The Israeli government said Wednesday it would not interfere with a funeral, permitting Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians to attend, but allowing only about 1,000 VIPs from the Gaza Strip.

“We have no desire to provoke the Palestinian street or the Arab world, or the rest of the world,” Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Army Radio. “So when the man dies, we have to allow them to mourn him. In their eyes he’s a hero.”

Arafat, who was moved from Ramallah to Paris on Oct. 29 for emergency treatment, died Thursday at the French military hospital where he had been treated since Oct. 29. The Palestinian leader spent his final days there in a coma. Doctors would not disclose what ailment killed him.

Top Palestinian officials, who had traveled to Paris for an update on Arafat’s health, hurried back to the West Bank Wednesday.

Throughout the morning, leaders from Arafat’s Fatah movement and the PLO drove into the Muqata in luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles to discuss who would succeed Arafat, who was simultaneously head of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.

The officials affirmed Fattouh would become caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority. Some officials had hoped to change the law to circumvent Fattouh, a bland politician hand-picked by Arafat after the previous speaker tried to initiate corruption investigations against the Palestinian leadership.

Fattouh is to hold the caretaker position for 60 days, until elections can be held. But Communications Minister Azzam Ahmed said elections were impossible under current security conditions, and some officials were trying to amend the law to allow parliament to choose the new president.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the 18-member PLO Executive Committee would decide on a new PLO chief immediately after Arafat’s burial. It is believed the job will go to Arafat’s PLO deputy, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

That position would likely allow Abbas, who has been acting as caretaker leader with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, to consolidate his grip on power.

The Palestinian officials also decided to take up Egypt’s offer to host a funeral service. A ceremony in Cairo would make attendance easier for Arab leaders who refuse to travel to the West Bank until an independent Palestinian state is established.

The leaders of Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil will attend Arafat’s funeral, said Shaath aide Majdi Khaldi. Many other countries will also send representatives, but it remains unclear at which level.

Shaath, Arafat’s security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, and three other senior Palestinian officials were expected to arrive in Cairo early Thursday to help prepare the funeral.

“It was decided that the body will be brought to Cairo and there will lie in state,” Erekat said. “After that, the body will be flown from Cairo to Ramallah.”

Even as the Palestinian officials drove away from the Muqata, six construction vehicles – dump trucks, cranes and earthmovers – drove into the compound.

Minutes later, crunching and screeching echoed as they cleared mounds of rubble and piles of crushed, rusted vehicles, scooping them into the back of dump trucks, which discarded them in a corner.

Palestinian officials said they were clearing rubble to rebuild a mosque destroyed by Israeli troops. Arafat’s tomb is to be inside the rebuilt mosque.

The compound was built by the British occupiers as a police fort to help put down violence by Jews and Palestinians.

After 1948, Jordan used the compound as a prison. When Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, it turned the Muqata into its military government headquarters.

The Palestinian Authority took it over a decade ago and turned it into Arafat’s West Bank headquarters, a symbol of hope for an upcoming Palestinian state. That ended four years ago with the outbreak of Israel-Palestinian violence.

AP-ES-11-11-04 0043EST

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