ANAHEIM, Calif. – Last summer, Motaz Herzallah needed $65,000 for an operation on a cancerous brain tumor.
He said he sent an appeal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) through contacts in the West Bank and received a check within three days.
"He saved my life," said Herzallah, a 43-year-old father of three whose family knew someone in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Few Palestinian-Americans have such a personal link to Arafat, but his death still resonates powerfully among those who started new lives in the United States. He was a symbol of the struggle for an independent state, even though many disagreed with him about how to achieve that goal.
"It's a very, very sad day for Palestinians," said Zahi Damuni, a biotech researcher in San Diego who, like others interviewed around the United States, hoped the loss of Arafat would inspire renewed efforts to resolve their conflict with Israel.
Arafat, who died early Thursday at a Paris hospital, was considered an elder statesman in some parts of the world and a terrorist in others. Even Palestinians were divided while he was alive.
In Michigan, home to about 350,000 Arab-Americans, some were saddened by the uncertain prospects of the Palestinian movement and wondered if anyone could replace Arafat.
"It's a major loss for us because we don't know that we're going to get anybody that is going to have that dynamism and that kind of personal charisma," said Yusif Barakat, a psychotherapist who was born in Haifa (search) and traveled from his home Pinckney to Dearborn to mourn with friends.
The news spread fast in the "Little Arabia" section of Anaheim, Calif., where Arab-American businesses revitalized a struggling neighborhood and photos of Arafat appeared on store windows.
Mohammed Elkhatib, a Palestinian who owns a cafe, said a friend came in crying shortly after the announcement in Paris. It was late, but the cafe was packed with people smoking flavored tobacco and celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (search).
"People were crying. They were all over the streets here on the sidewalks watching TVs, listening to radios. It was a big shock for us," said Elkhatib, 25, a former U.S. Army soldier.
Like many Palestinians, he has mixed feelings about Arafat and his legacy.
"Everybody makes mistakes .... but he just wanted his country back," Elkhatib said.
People on both sides of the bitter dispute between Israel and the Palestinians acknowledged the arrival of a historic moment, a possible chance to restart the stalled peace process.
"I think we can live together — it's possible," said Elham Ghommed, 15, an Israeli who lives in Nazareth and was in Louisville, Ky., as part of a 13-member Israeli choir that joined a 10-member Palestinian instrumental group which performed Thursday at a private school.
Diana Khaled Salah, 23, a chaperone with the Palestinian group, said the Israelis could no longer use their dislike of Arafat as an excuse not to achieve peace.
"If they want a partner in peace, we'll find them a partner in peace," said Salah, whose father and 15-year-old brother were killed in July when Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants battled near the family's apartment on the West Bank.