Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered today to honour their iconic leader Yasser Arafat, with president Mahmud Abbas due to address the rally amid a brewing political crisis. The fifth anniversary of Mr Arafat's death finds Palestinians more divided than ever and his successor Mr Abbas pondering resignation because of stalled US-led peace efforts that have failed to bring about an independent Palestinian state.
A crowd waving Palestinian flags and banners of Mr Abbas's Fatah party crammed the government compound that contains Arafat's tomb to honour the man who catapulted the Palestinians' struggle onto the world stage and led them through nearly four decades of armed struggle and sputtering peace talks. A senior Palestinian security official estimated that more than 100,000 people had gathered in and around the Muqataa presidential compound, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and the site of Mr Arafat's mausoleum.
Mr Abbas was to address the crowd amid grim predictions by his aides that he may resign as president, perhaps leading to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority established by Mr Arafat during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. "The moment of truth has come and we have to be frank with the Palestinian people that we have not been able to reach a two-state solution through 18 years of negotiation," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
"We have become convinced that Israel does not want a Palestinian state on lands it occupied in 1967," he said, referring to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the Six Day War. Mr Abbas resigning would throw the divided Palestinians into new legal and political limbo. According to Palestinian Basic Law, to become effective Mr Abbas's resignation has to be approved by two thirds of the Palestinian parliament. But the chamber has not convened since 2006 and it is unclear whether it would do so if he quits.
If the resignation is approved, the speaker of parliament, Aziz Dweik of the rival Islamist Hamas movement, would assume the presidency until new elections are held within 60 days. But aides have indicated in recent days that if Mr Abbas steps down the entire Palestinian Authority could collapse, which would spell the end of the already defunct Oslo process and leave nearly four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank once again dependent on Israel for basic services.
The Palestinians have said they will not resume peace talks with Israel without a complete freeze of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, a demand initially backed by Washington. But Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to freeze settlements, and in recent weeks Washington has backed down, calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table without preconditions.
Mr Erakat said the two-state solution would only be possible at this point if there were "unprecedented international movement" towards pressuring Israel because "the situation has reached the point of no return." The presence of nearly a half million Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem has long been seen by the Palestinians as a major obstacle to the establishment of a viable independent state.
Despite the fact that the international community, including the United States, views all settlements as illegal, the number of settlers has more than doubled since the start of the Oslo process in 1993. Mr Arafat, who died aged 75 in a French hospital on November 11, 2004, remains a beloved symbol of unity and resistance to Israel for the Palestinians, who have been riven by factional fighting in recent years.