Israel plans to stop burial of Arafat at holy site

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

The Independent

15 July 2004

Israel has drawn up contingency plans to prevent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians trying to bury Yasser Arafat at the disputed holy sites of Jerusalem when he dies.

A leaked Foreign Ministry document has given a fresh insight into the authorities' thinking on how to contain the wave of unrest they fear will attend the death of the Palestinian Authority president. The document also warns that Israel is likely to be blamed for his death.

In the scenario outlined by the document, the Palestinian Authority could collapse and militant Islamic groups such as Hamas could seek to take control of the Palestinian government apparatus from their bases in the refugee camps.

According to reports of the leak, the document says exceptional steps may have to follow Mr Arafat's death - including a "broad" military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Although Mr Arafat's health has been a matter of speculation, neither the document nor its leaking appear to have been triggered by any particular development. While the Foreign Ministry refused to comment, government sources said it had been produced as part of the ministry's regular planning procedures.

Mr Arafat, who was born in Cairo, has not stated publicly where he would like to be buried. However, Israel believes that he has been seeking - amid resistance from religious authorities and families with property rights at the site - a burial plot on the holy site Jews know as the Temple Mount and Arabs as al-Haram al-Sharif, the al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The document appears to presage a spontaneous upsurge of Palestinians carrying the body to the Old City and suggests that the ministry will have to ensure that he is buried elsewhere - such as Abu Dis, in a site overlooking al-Aqsa.

The document proposes that Israel allow Mr Arafat to be treated abroad if his health deteriorates, apparently in the hope that he will die outside the country, removing blame from Israel and making it easier to stop his burial in Jerusalem.

Imad Shakur, an adviser to Mr Arafat, said he was amazed at the timing of the report, and that Mr Arafat was in the best of health. He said: "I would recommend to Israel that it take advantage of this period to act to promote peace."

* An Israeli armoured vehicle fired towards a United Nations convoy carrying Peter Hansen, the director general of the UN relief and works agency, yesterday after 16 trucks had delivered food supplies to Beit Hanoun, the Gaza town which has been under military siege for nearly a fortnight. The army claimed it had been firing at militants. Witnesses said they were unaware of any counter-fire.