RAMALLAH, West Bank – Tens of thousands of Palestinians converged on Yasser Arafat's gravesite Saturday to commemorate the second anniversary of their leaders' death in a rally that also appeared aimed at reinvigorating his faltering Fatah Party.
Fatah bused in Palestinians from across the West Bank for the event, dropping many of them in the center of Ramallah — the Palestinians' de facto capital. They then marched through the city carrying Palestinian flags, Fatah banners and pictures of Arafat to the muqaata, the compound that served as the late leader's headquarters.
Top Palestinian officials laid wreaths at the glass shrine atop Arafat's grave inside the compound and read verses from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, while crowds of people filled the nearby courtyard. A massive picture of Arafat stood nearby.
Addressing the late leader, he said: "You inspired us by your long national roots, by your wise leadership, by your persistent, honest commitment. That's what fills us with determination to go ahead and fulfill our national goals, the national goals that you worked for."
Arafat, who dominated Palestinian politics for nearly four decades, died Nov. 11, 2004 after a sudden, rapid decline in his health.
More than a year after his death, Arafat's Fatah Party, which dominated Palestinian political life since the 1960s, lost a parliamentary election to the violent Islamic Hamas group, and chastened leaders have been trying to reinvigorate the movement ever since.
Last year's commemoration of Arafat's death — months before Fatah's electoral drubbing — was a staid and lightly attended affair. The year's gathering was far larger, signaling that Fatah was hoping to use Arafat as a potent nationalist symbol to reinvigorate the party.
"We miss him so much these days," said Amneh Mosaimi, 43, who came with her 13-year-old daughter from the northern West Bank city of Nablus. "After his death, our situation got worse and worse. During his era, we had education, we had health care, but now everything has stopped. All I want now is for a leader like Arafat, someone who gets things done."
Hamas' takeover of the Palestinian government sparked international sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian Authority and badly damaged the economy.
The West has demanded Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept past agreements with Israel, conditions the militant group has rejected.
Abbas and Hamas have been negotiating to form a national unity government made up of independent experts, hoping that would be enough to end the sanctions.
Abbas said Saturday he expected the new government to be formed in the coming weeks.
"I tell my people that we have achieved great progress on the way to forming a national unity government that can end the siege and open the horizons for political solutions that will end the occupation forever," Abbas said at a ceremony marking two years since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"I expect, God willing, that this government will see the light of day before the end of this month," he said.
As a leader Arafat inspired great emotions by both his supporters and detractors. Israel saw him as a terrorist. Some of his people viewed him as deeply corrupt, but many Palestinians saw him as their best hope fore achieving an independent state,
The crowds gathered at the muqaata Saturday said they sorely missed Arafat's leadership.
"There was no leader like him in the Arab world. He was the strongest and the bravest," said Ibrahim Hamidan, 15, from a refugee camp near Jericho. "He was a symbol for all Arabs. He is the only one who stood against Israel and America, that's why they killed him."
The true cause of Arafat's death remains a mystery, and his widow, Suha refused to allow an autopsy. But many Palestinians believe he was poisoned by Israel, despite the lack of proof.
On Saturday, Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government renewed the poisoning accusations.
"He paid for his national principles, for his refusal to make concessions regarding the rights of the Palestinian people, with his life," he said in a statement.