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Yasser Arafat

In bay area, reaction to Arafat falls along familiar lines

The strip of N 56th Street that runs through Temple Terrace might as well have been a border between Israel and Palestine on Thursday.

Published November 12, 2004

On one side of the road, inside the Al-Aqsa Grocery, two televisions were tuned to Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news station. Cameras showed the body of Yasser Arafat arriving in Cairo, Egypt.

Behind the counter, 30-year-old Abdulhafiz Atiyeh talked about the death of the Palestinian leader.

"We never thought that Arafat would die," Atiyeh said. "I know he did bad things. (But) he worked so hard for his people. He was a good man, especially for his people. He wanted peace."

Across the street, inside the World Class Black Belt Academy, a sign in the front door was marked with the Star of David and offered "Israeli Self Defense" classes.

"When I turned the TV on and heard he had died, I said, "Good,"' said David Overstreet, 43, who owns the business and supports Israel. "I wish he had died 50 years ago. I'm sure Israel got a new holiday (today)."

The news of Arafat's death played out in vastly different ways around Tampa Bay on Thursday. Depending on whom you asked, he was either a hero or a scoundrel, a man of peace or a man of war.

Far from Gaza, where men took to the streets and burned tires to mark Arafat's death, Jews and Arabs reacted to the news differently.

Norman Gross, founder of Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting, heard about Arafat's death on TV at his home in Palm Harbor. Gross welcomed the news, he acknowledged.

He repeated a joke about Arafat's expected passing. It went like this:

Arafat's followers ask a psychic to predict when Arafat will die. On a Jewish holiday, the psychic says.

Which one? they ask.

"Any day Arafat dies will be a Jewish holiday," the psychic says.

"That is a nasty response," Gross acknowledged. "But I don't think many of us can help feeling that way."

He doubted history would judge Arafat well.

"He really was a failure," Gross said. "I don't know if he will be the father of his country because he never allowed his country to emerge."

In St. Petersburg, Ahmed Bedier learned about Arafat's death when a television reporter called him for an interview.

"He will be remembered as a hero and as a freedom fighter and a statesman," said Bedier, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

He recalled the image of Arafat on the White House lawn, reaching out to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Arafat had finally convinced Israel and the West to recognize a Palestine state, he said, a goal that once had seemed impossible.

The world treated Arafat as a statesman, "who did the best he could with what he had," Bedier said. "He was always trying to get the job done."

In Clearwater, Rabbi Arthur Baseman of Temple B'Nai Israel disagreed.

"I think history will remember him as an obstacle to peace," Baseman said. "His death makes possible what his life made impossible."

Back and forth it went.

But amid the enduring animosity, some found room for hope.

"I do hope, like all of us, for peace," said Imam Mohammad Sultan, director of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. "Instead of talking, everyone bad-mouthing, to really do something. We have to work together to establish peace."

It is a dream Evita Cheaib shares. She is president of the Organization of Arab Students in Solidarity at USF.

"Both sides need leaders with compassion, honesty, resolve, and who truly believe in peace but can agree to a fair land agreement," she said. "Both sides pray for peace every day. That is a fact."

[Last modified November 12, 2004, 00:32:13]

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