Gaza, Ramallah possible Arafat burial sites, but Palestinians refuse to discuss arrangements

Friday, November 5th 2004, 6:52 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel will permit Yasser Arafat to be laid to rest in the Gaza Strip when he dies, but will keep the Palestinian leader out of Jerusalem, a city ``where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists,'' an Israeli Cabinet minister said Friday.

Palestinian officials refused to begin planning for Arafat's funeral or coordinate with Israel on the movement of attending foreign dignitaries as long as his condition remains unclear, officials said. A top Palestinian official said Arafat was in a coma ``between life and death,'' but denied Israeli media reports he was on life support.

It is not clear whether Arafat has left a will. However, he has told aides privately in recent years that he would like to be buried near Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine.

The mosque compound is built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples and is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. Conflicts over control and sovereignty at the hotly disputed site have scuttled several rounds of peace talks.

Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid reiterated Friday that Jerusalem is off-limits. ``They (the Palestinians) will choose where to bury him, but he will not be buried in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists,'' he told Associated Press Television News.

Israel has sought to keep a low profile in dealing with the deterioration in Arafat's health, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon instructing government officials to avoid speaking to reporters on the issue. Lapid, a longtime journalist, is known for speaking bluntly.

Burial in Jerusalem would be seen as strengthening Palestinian claims to the traditionally Arab sector of the city as a future capital.

Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gaza was the only burial option, and that they oppose allowing Arafat to be interred in the West Bank, including the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis.

Arafat had spent the last three years in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which effectively became his prison after Israel besieged his compound more than two years ago.

Lapid did not refer to a possible ban on a West Bank burial, but told Israel TV's Channel Two: ``Now we are talking about Gaza. We have no problems with Gaza, of course.''

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said there have been no contacts with Israel on funeral arrangements. ``We've heard about their (Israel's) plans only from the media,'' he told The Associated Press from Gaza.

Mohammed Bassiouni, Egypt's former ambassador to Israel, said he expected a memorial service to take place outside the Palestinian territories and the burial to be in Gaza. Bassiouni, who heads the national security committee in Egypt's 264-seat Shura Council, said his country could help with security arrangements at a Gaza burial.

Arafat's clan, the Al-Kidwas, are originally from Gaza, though the Palestinian leader grew up in Jerusalem and Cairo. The family has a small plot of 25 to 30 graves in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. The overgrown patch is in the middle of a busy vegetable market and would not be considered appropriate.

Other burial options include a seaside plot next to his old headquarters in Gaza City, or Gaza City's ``martyrs' cemetery'' east of the city, close to Israel.

A funeral in Gaza would pose a security nightmare for foreign dignitaries. There has been increasing chaos in the coastal strip in recent months, with rival groups of gunmen and security chiefs battling for control ahead of a planned Israeli troop withdrawal next year.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia initially was to hold meetings with Gaza security chiefs later Friday, but Palestinian officials said he postponed the trip until Saturday.

Palestinian factions, including the ruling Fatah movement and Islamic militant opposition groups, were to meet later Friday in Gaza to discuss ways of preventing unrest in the event of Arafat's death.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were instructed to prepare for the arrival of foreign envoys for the funeral, but the Palestinians weren't ready yet to cooperate in the planning.

Israel anticipated receiving envoys from countries with which it has diplomatic relations and providing security for them until they pass into Palestinian-controlled territory, officials said. Envoys from other countries would likely arrive across the border from Jordan or Egypt, depending on the location of the grave site.

It was unclear who would attend. Although Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority formed after he returned from exile in 1994, it is not a widely recognized government. The Palestinians have observer status at the United Nations.