JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel is determined to keep Yasser Arafat out of Jerusalem even in death, with one Cabinet minister saying Friday that the holy city is reserved for the burial of Jewish kings, “not Arab terrorists.”

Palestinian officials said publicly that it is inappropriate to talk about funeral arrangements as long as their 75-year-old leader clings to life at a Paris hospital. A hospital spokesman said Friday that Arafat was in a coma and “has not gotten worse.”

One official said Palestinian leaders are hoping to enlist international support for a burial at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest shrine, which was built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples.

The top Muslim cleric in Jerusalem weighed in for the first time Friday, saying Arafat requested burial near Al Aqsa when the two met four months ago. The comments by the mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, marked the first official comment on Arafat’s burial wishes.

The way the dispute is resolved could signal how Israel and the emerging Palestinian leadership – Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas – will get along in the future.

Palestinian officials said a generous Israeli gesture, such as allowing burial in Jerusalem, could go a long way toward building trust destroyed in four years of fighting. However, Israel fears acceding to such a request would strengthen Palestinian claims to the traditionally Arab sector of the city as a future capital.

Arafat is reviled by many Israelis, and seeing him interred near Judaism’s holiest site would draw public outrage. Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said Arafat “will not be buried in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists.”

His blunt remarks came despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s order to government officials to keep a low profile and avoid antagonizing the Palestinians.

However, Sharon himself told his Cabinet last week that he would not permit Arafat, his old nemesis, to be buried in Jerusalem.

It is not clear if Arafat has left a written will, and Sabri said he was not aware of one. He said the Palestinian leader told him “he has a desire to be buried in Jerusalem, near the Al Aqsa Mosque.”

Sabri said he didn’t expect Israel to honor Arafat’s wishes. “The Israelis didn’t respect President Arafat alive, and we don’t see them respecting him when he’s dead,” Sabri said.

Israeli security officials said Gaza was the only burial option. Even a compromise initially floated by army planners – interment in the West Bank suburb of Abu Dis, which offers a view of Al Aqsa – has since been ruled out by the military.

Army officials also oppose burial elsewhere in the West Bank, in part because Palestinian security forces would have trouble protecting the large numbers of foreign dignitaries expected for the event.

Palestinian police function better in Gaza, but a funeral there would still pose a security nightmare for visiting heads of state. There has been increasing chaos in recent months in the coastal strip, with groups of gunmen and security chiefs battling for control ahead of a planned Israeli troop withdrawal next year.

Rival Palestinian groups, including Islamic militants, gathered Friday in Gaza in a show of unity they hoped would prevent the region from spiraling into further violence in the face of Arafat’s increasingly dire condition.

Mohammed Bassiouni, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel, said he expected a memorial service to take place outside the Palestinian territories and burial to be in Gaza.

Egyptian officials denied reports that Egypt, Jordan and Israel are discussing funeral plans. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said there have been no contacts with Israel on funeral arrangements.

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.

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.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Qadoura Fares said Arafat’s burial could be an opening for a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. “Israel has the chance to make far-reaching gestures,” he said. “I think that how the Israeli leaders act … Palestinians will take notice.”

AP-ES-11-05-04 1514EST

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