Israel rules out Jerusalem funeral for ailing Arafat

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The Independent Online

Israel is pressing behind the scenes for the critically ill Yasser Arafat to be buried in Gaza after resisting attempts to hold his funeral in any part of greater Jerusalem.

The differences over where Mr Arafat should be buried prompted unconfirmed speculation that the 75-year-old Palestinian President was being kept on a life-support machine in France until they could be resolved.

In the briefest of statements last night outside the Percy military hospital, just outside Paris, a medical spokesman Christian Estripeau said: "President Yasser Arafat's health has not worsened. It is considered stable since the previous health bulletin [24 hours earlier]."

Dr Estripeau refused to answer questions beyond making clear that the statement was issued in accordance with the "discretion" sought by Mr Arafat's family, including his wife, Suha.

Although the possibility of a burial in Ramallah, where Mr Arafat was confined in his Muqata compound for the past two and half years, has not been ruled out, Israel's preference - as well as that of some senior Palestinians - is for it to take place in Gaza where Mr Arafat's family came from and where his mother is buried. Mr Arafat was born in Cairo but his family is from Gaza.

Israel is arguing that Gaza would, in any case, be the logical choice on the grounds of the intention of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to disengage from the territory next year, of Mr Arafat's close family connections with Gaza, and the relative ease and security with which Arab leaders would be able to travel to the burial through Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Israel has already made it clear it will not allow Mr Arafat to be buried in the precincts of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a site which is also sacred to Jews as Temple Mount.

Mr Sharon's recent declaration that he will not permit Mr Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians regard as their capital, is thought to apply to the entire city - including a site in the Palestinian suburb of Abu Dis which had previously been thought a possible burial place, and which overlooks the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel, which has been in delicate private discussions about the arrangements immediately after Mr Arafat's death - with the international community, and, at least indirectly, with the transitional Palestinian leadership - may also be apprehensive about the close proximity of Ramallah to Jerusalem. Neither Palestinian senior officials nor their Israeli counterparts have been prepared to comment on the issue while Mr Arafat is alive.

However, the Israeli Justice Minister, Yosef Lapid, said yesterday that Mr Arafat "will not be buried in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists".

Although the West Bank, including Ramallah itself, has remained notably calm during Mr Arafat's illness and only a small crowd of well-wishers turned out to see him depart for treatment in Paris on Friday last week, a leaked foreign ministry document earlier this year foresaw possible serious public order problems in the wake of his death.

It envisaged that thousands of Palestinians might seize Mr Arafat's body and march on the Old City of Jerusalem in an attempt to bury him near the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel is bracing itself for the security and other problems posed by the arrival of large numbers of foreigndignitaries for the funeral. It has indicated to foreign governments that it does not intend to block the participation of Arab leaders, including Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, along with representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The top Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, said yesterday that Mr Arafat had asked to be buried near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, marking the first official comment on the ailing leader's burial wishes.

Mr Sabri told reporters that Mr Arafat had made the request during a meeting four months ago. "The President [Mr Arafat] has shown a desire to be buried in Jerusalem, and in a place that is close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque," Mr Sabri said.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a senior Palestinian official yesterday as saying: "Arafat is unconscious and has undergone a general systems collapse. He is being aided by respiratory machines and his condition appears irreversible, but reports of his death are not true."

A total of 17 Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, met in Gaza yesterday in what Palestinian sources described as a "show of unity".

Observers also interpreted the meeting as an attempt by the more militant factions to lay claim to a future role in Palestinian politics and to press for elections in the wake of Mr Arafat's death.