TEL AVIV -- As Yasser Arafat's condition deteriorated in a hospital outside Paris yesterday, an explosive political crisis was brewing in Israel and the occupied territories over where the man who personifies the Palestinian national movement eventually would be buried.
A senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel said no agreement was reached before Arafat departed for medical treatment in France regarding what would happen to his remains if he died while abroad. He said the issue of allowing Arafat to be laid to rest in Israeli-controlled territory would be considered only at such time as Palestinian Authority officials requested it.
Palestinian officials said they wanted to bury Arafat in central Jerusalem, on the sacred hill known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Christians and Jews as the Temple Mount -- a location flatly rejected by Sharon, who told Cabinet ministers a few days ago that ''as long as I am prime minister, Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem."
The issue has important political dimensions, officials on both sides agreed yesterday, and its outcome could indicate whether the two sides will continue their current, extreme estrangement or lower the tension.
''Jerusalem is the capital. Al Haram is holy, and Arafat is from the Husseini family," said Issa Qaraqi, an activist in Arafat's Fatah movement, in Ramallah yesterday. The Husseinis are a very old and aristocratic Jerusalem clan that owns burial grounds within the sacred precincts. ''The Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Fatah all say the president should be buried there."
However, Arafat's membership in the Husseini clan is disputed by Palestinians as well as Israelis. His original birth certificate does not bear the Husseini name, and the Israeli press reported that during a previous Arafat illness emissaries from the Palestinian leader approached the Husseinis to secure a burial site for him and were rebuffed.
The Sharon government was absolute in stating Arafat could not be buried in Jerusalem.
''You don't bury an archterrorist in your capital," said Sharon adviser Ra'anan Gissin. ''Would President Bush consider burying Osama bin Laden in Arlington National Cemetery once he is captured?"
''There was no request in advance" regarding what would be done if Arafat died abroad, Gissin said. ''We were asked to ease and facilitate his departure for medical treatment and his return," and this was agreed on.
On where Arafat might be interred, he said: ''If there is a request that we think is proper and will not harm Israel's security or cause upheaval, we will consider it." There were indications on both sides that how the issue is resolved would say a lot about the immediate future of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
For example, Gissin was careful to state that Sharon's remarks referred to ''sovereign Jerusalem," and Qaraqi avoided stating that the Palestinians would only accept burial within the sacred compound, which encompasses the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the site of the biblical temples of King David and King Herod.
Qaraqi said Palestinian officials know Sharon opposes Arafat being buried in central Jerusalem. ''It will be up to the [Palestinian] government to decide what to do if Israel decides not to allow us to bury him there. Perhaps it will be in Gaza or Ramallah."
Despite unconfirmed reports yesterday in Israeli and Moroccan media that Arafat is brain-dead, Qaraqi said Palestinian leaders are not discussing the burial issue intensively. ''It is too early. We are going to raise it on Sunday" in a meeting of the top Fatah leadership.
The statements by Gissin and Qaraqi lend credence to reports, published in Israel since the severity of Arafat's illness became known, that the sides might agree to bury Arafat in Abu Dis, a West Bank village that Palestinians consider part of Jerusalem but Israelis do not.
The Palestinians have partially constructed a building for their parliament in Abu Dis; there is ample room at the site for a national monument and gravesite with a view of Haram.
Charles A. Radin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.