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Cleaning up for Arafat's final journey

By Michael Holmes

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world. CNN's Michael Holmes has been covering Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's declining health from his Ramallah compound in the West Bank and filed this report Wednesday just hours before the official word of Arafat's death.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- After much negotiation and not a little compromise, it's been decided that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be buried in Ramallah, inside the Palestinian Authority compound that had been his virtual prison for the past three years.

We've been told his body will be interred in a monument being constructed at this very moment. What's unusual about this structure is it will, we're told, be "moveable."

There are many Palestinians who believe their leader should be buried in East Jerusalem, the place they hope will be the eventual capital of a Palestinian state.

Islamic law allows for the moving of a body after "burial" if the deceased had specifically requested a specific final resting spot.

Yasser Arafat had requested Jerusalem.

And so Wednesday we watched as trucks and bulldozers moved into the massive parking area next to Yasser Arafat's own offices and began cleaning up.

Cleaning up the detritus of three years of fighting and Israeli incursions.

I've spent weeks here watching such incursions, tank shells fired into the buildings in this large compound, heavy caliber machine guns raking the walls, explosives used to completely collapse some of the buildings.

The rubble remains. Concrete, twisted metal and crushed vehicles have for years littered the open areas of the compound. In recent months the rubble was used as a rudimentary attempt to make an Israeli kidnap attempt -- a great Arafat fear -- more difficult.

Palestinian security forces added an odd sight to that landscape -- dozens of 44-gallon drums, filled with concrete and fitted with long steel bars. Again, designed to prevent helicopter landings.

Ironically, all of this being cleared today just so a helicopter could bring Yasser Arafat's body back to the place in which he's spent so much time.

His own offices and quarters are a backdrop to this cleanup.

Palestinian officials in Paris this week commented that the living conditions inside may well have contributed to his ill health.

Arafat's own bedroom had a tiny window, rarely open. I've not once seen a window open in the office area where he spent most of his day. It's claustrophobic, dank and dark. The air was usually thick with cigarette smoke.

Arafat didn't smoke but most of his guards do, as do many of his aides and visitors. Although smoking was discouraged near the Palestinian leader, this is a small area and it invariably pervades.

More than once, CNN producer Sausan Ghosheh and I had lunched with Arafat, for an off-the-record briefing. His meals were always similar -- a soup or broth, vegetables, bread. All very bland. He would often almost force food on his guest, sometimes less than tasty morsels. Sausan and I would play a game of "hey, try this, it's delicious" just to get it off our own plate.

Although Arafat had long been accused by Israel and others (including many Palestinians) of secreting away millions of dollars of Palestinian Authority money, he didn't spend it on himself. His life was frugal, Spartan and, ultimately, very unhealthy.

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