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Arafat's Jerusalem Burial Request Disputed

The top Palestinian Islamic cleric said Friday it was Yasser Arafat's (search) wish to be buried in Jerusalem, increasing pressure on Israel, which has sharply refused to allow the Palestinian leader to be laid to rest in the city if he dies.

The Mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, said that during a meeting four months ago, Arafat asked to be buried near the city's Al Aqsa Mosque (search), Islam's third holiest shrine. Jews revere the site, built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples, as the Temple Mount.

"The president has shown a desire to be buried in Jerusalem, and in a place that is close to the Al Aqsa Mosque," Sabri told The Associated Press. Sabri, the top Muslim official in Jerusalem, said he did not know whether the 75-year-old Arafat has a written will.

Israel's justice minister, Yosef Lapid, however, said Israel would not permit a Jerusalem funeral, saying the city is "where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists."

The comments from both sides portended a likely political fight over any funeral arrangements for Arafat. The Palestinian leader was in a coma on Friday, fighting for his life.

Palestinian leaders hope to enlist international support for his burial at Al Aqsa, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity. Negotiations with Israel would only begin after Arafat's death, the official said.

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

The Palestinians have not been in contact with Israeli officials over the question of burying Arafat, officials said. "It's premature at this stage to talk about burying or not burying," Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat said.

Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Gaza Strip (search) 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.

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."

But he underlined 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 (search) instructing government officials to avoid speaking to reporters on the issue. Lapid, a longtime journalist, is known for speaking bluntly.

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.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said there have been no contacts with Israel on funeral arrangements, telling The Associated Press from Gaza that officials have heard of Israel's plans only from the media.

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 (search). 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 attending the event. 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.

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.

Erekat chided Israel after some people celebrated the reports that Arafat had died.

"I hope the Israeli public will show sensitivities. I've seen some Israelis dancing in the streets, hugging each other yesterday," Erekat said in a televised interview. "I think it's alien... I cannot describe my feelings. It's heartbreaking to see Israelis hugging and kissing in such circumstances."

After Israeli media reported Thursday night that Arafat had died, some young Orthodox Jews gathered in a downtown Jerusalem square to celebrate — singing, dancing, distributing sweets and declaring that one of their greatest enemies was "on his way to hell."