Sharon - Arafat will never be allowed burial in Jerusalem

Monday, November 1, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday he would never let Yasser Arafat be buried in Jerusalem but would honor a commitment to allow the Palestinian leader to return to the West Bank when he finishes medical treatment in France.

Meanwhile, senior Palestinian officials held high-level meetings to prove the government was still functioning in Arafat's absence.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, whose efforts to force Arafat to relinquish some power have largely failed, chaired a session of the Palestinian National Security Council, which commands the most important of the myriad Palestinian security forces.

Qureia asked the security chiefs to draw up a list of whatever they need to tighten security in the Palestinian areas and present it to his Cabinet for approval, said Palestinian politician Abbas Zaki. The move apparently was meant to head off chaotic infighting in a post-Arafat period of uncertainty.

Vacant chair

In a symbolic gesture, Qureia refused to sit at the head of the table, Arafat's place.

The Palestinian Legislative Council also met Sunday and the PLO executive committee, which met Saturday, held a second meeting on Sunday night.

"In a commitment ... to our president, our national symbol, we are convening all our institutions as we used to do when he was present," said Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's top security adviser.

Despite the show of unity, many Palestinians have grown disillusioned with Arafat's rule in recent years, accusing his government of favoritism and rampant corruption that has left the Gaza Strip in chaos and swathes of the West Bank under the control of local gangs.

Israel has long accused Arafat of fomenting violence and kept him confined to his headquarters in Ramallah for 2 1/2 years with threats to prevent him from returning.

However, when Arafat's health deteriorated last week, the government said he could leave for treatment and would be allowed to return, prompting Arafat to head to a French hospital. Doctors were still trying to determine what ails Arafat.

Despite pleas from several hardline Cabinet ministers to renege on his promise, Sharon reiterated Sunday that Arafat would be allowed to return. But Sharon ruled out a Jerusalem burial for the Palestinian leader.

"As long as I am prime minister, Arafat won't be buried in Jerusalem," he told his Cabinet, according to participants in the meeting.

Arafat has said he wants to be buried in Jerusalem, at the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. Israel has marked a possible burial site for Arafat in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, in the West Bank, security officials said.

Israeli security officials have expressed concern that a funeral procession in Jerusalem could spin out of control. Israel also believes a Jerusalem burial would bolster Palestinian claims to the city and further polish Arafat's image.

Rajoub, speaking on Israel TV, called Sharon's comments a "shameful disgrace," saying it was inappropriate to discuss the burial matter while Arafat was alive.

Sharon's government has shunned Arafat as a terrorist and refused to meet with him in recent years. Saying the Palestinians had no leader interested in making peace, Sharon proposed his "unilateral disengagement" plan for leaving the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements with no input from the Palestinians.

Sharon told the Cabinet that Arafat's departure would not sway him from the plan, however he would not rule out new talks with an Arafat successor.

"If a different, serious Palestinian leadership will be formed to dismantle the terror infrastructure, we will renew negotiations on the basis of the road map (peace plan) and maybe it will be coordinated with the disengagement plan," Sharon said. "Nothing has happened in the field until now, so no point in changing the plan."

The departure of Arafat, 75, has left a gaping leadership hole among the Palestinians. Arafat has been their leader since 1969 and refused to groom a successor.

Despite the spate of official meetings, it was clear the Palestinians had no potential replacement with Arafat's stature and certainly no one with the ability to assert control over his crumbling empire.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Sunday that Israel hoped Arafat would be followed by a new, more moderate, Palestinian leadership that would be willing to crack down on militants and talk peace with Israel.

He declined to specify who would be an acceptable alternative.

"It's their decision who they would like to choose after Arafat. but I believe that everyone after Arafat would be better than him," Shalom told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, an Islamic Jihad militant was killed Sunday in a fire fight with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Jenin, where the army has been operating since last week, the army and Islamic Jihad said. Another militant injured in the shootout and four other suspects were arrested, the army said.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers opened fire at two Palestinian gunmen who approached the Kfar Darom settlement, and shot the assailant, military sources said. The soldiers then hunted down and shot the second gunman. The condition of the gunmen wasn't known, the sources added.

In other violence, a Jewish settler was moderately injured when Palestinian militants fired seven mortar shells at Jewish settlements in Gaza, the army and settlers said.

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