Like many other Jewish families around the world, the Ariel Sharons of Jerusalem had a few friends over last night to celebrate the beginning of Hanuka. But when Israel's former defense minister lit the first ceremonial candle in front of 300 invited guests in his new apartment in Jerusalem's Moslem Quarter, he may have been igniting a political fire that will be hard to contain.
Mr. Sharon's glittery, widely publicized housewarming was designed to make a political point with which few Israelis would disagree - that Israel's control over a unified Jerusalem, formally claimed two decades ago, is a permanent fact.
Even so, the provocative gesture of Israel's combative soldier-politician, (now trade and industry minister) has touched off a lively controversy.
Many Israelis say Sharon's move risks upsetting the delicate mosaic of coexistence among Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in the Old City, weakening the legitimacy of Israel's claims to govern a unified Jerusalem.
Arabs fear that Sharon's move could launch an influx of Jewish residents into the Muslim quarter, eventually crowding out the Arab families who have lived there for generations.
``Coming from a [government] minister, it's like saying if we leaders move here other Jews should follow,'' says Mubarak Awad, a prominent Palestinian activist. ``Instead of making peace, [the Israelis] are putting more wood on the fire.''
Sharon ``has decided to personally donate an additional focal point for the conflagration in Jewish-Arab relations,'' comments the Hebrew daily Haaretz in the wake of a week of Arab-Israeli strife that has left 10 dead and 200 wounded in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
An estimated 220 regular and border police were deployed throughout the Mulim quarter to provide security for Sharon's 300 guests last night.
In a decision that still has not been recognized by the United States or the United Nations, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem - which includes the Old City - in 1980.
But city fathers have tried to reassure Muslim and Christian minorities in the city that their rights and religious practices will be respected.
In a letter released earlier this week Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek criticized Sharon's move, saying ``an act like this gives the green light to processes that go against coexistence in the city.''
``I believe wholly in our historical right over Jerusalem,'' said Mr. Kollek's letter declining the Hanuka party. ``Because of this, it is our duty to act with restraint and common sense.''
A spokesman for the mayor says about 25 Jewish families now share the Muslim quarter with about 17,000 Arabs.
About 20 police officers will be required on a full time basis to protect Sharon's new residence, in addition to 12 who now protect his other residence in the Negev Desert. Police Ministry officials decline to comment on reports that a supplemental budget has been requested to defray Sharon's new security costs.
So far Sharon himself has not commented publicly about his move though he is said to believe that his highly visible presence will help make the Old City safer for Jewish residents and visitors.
Because of the stabbing death of two Jewish students in the Muslim quarter during the past 13 months, police did not grant permits for demonstrations at the time of Sharon's party last night. But permission was given to the Israeli group Peace Now to protest the dinner at the Damascus Gate, just outside the Old City. Muslim merchants in the Old City went on strike Tuesday to protest Sharon's move.
In a letter, legislators from the right-wing Likud bloc praised Sharon's decision to move to the Old City as ``the best proof of all that the people of Israel have come to remain in the land for all eternity.''
Labor ministers have been reluctant to take issue with the right of Jews to live anywhere in the Old City. But the high security cost associated with the move has rankled sensitivities. ``If he wants to go and live there he's welcome to, but not at the expense of the government,'' says a spokesman for the Labor alignment.