India's military hopes the trip, which begins on Monday and is the first by an Israeli prime minister, will boost defence ties. It has raised expectations of a deal worth more than $1 billion for Israeli Phalcon airborne radars.

But Indian Muslims are planning a series of demonstrations against the Israeli prime minister.

Sharon has already been forced to cancel his planned visit to the Taj Mahal over security concerns, and thousands from India’s Muslim community and left-wing groups intend to prevent him from entering Rajghat, the spot where the revered non-violence advocate Mahatma Gandhi was cremated.

“(Indian Muslims) consider Sharon a criminal, because of his role in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982 and his killing of so many innocent Palestinians,” Dr Zubeir Ahmed Farouky, an Arabic professor at New Delhi’s Jamia Milla Islamia University, told Aljazeera.

Muslim outrage

"By inviting Ariel Sharon, the government of India has stabbed Muslims in the back"

Fareed-Uz-Zaman,
chief cleric of Minara Masjid mosque, Mumbai

“At the government level, India sees Israel as a natural anti-terror ally. But at the public level, there have been large demonstrations against the visit,” Dr Farouky said.

Muslim clerics reacted to the news with dismay.

"It is very unfortunate that the BJP government is joining the US and Israel to create an anti-Islamic climate," said SMN Rahman Barkati, chief cleric at the Tipu Sultan mosque in the eastern city of Calcutta.

Hundreds of Muslims rallied outside one of Mumbai’s main mosques after Friday prayers protesting against the visit.

"By inviting Ariel Sharon, the government of India has stabbed Muslims in the back," Fareed-Uz-Zaman, the chief cleric of Minara Masjid, told the crowd. "We consider Sharon a bitter enemy of Islam, a bitter enemy of Muslims."

Some protesters waved banners and placards reading, "Ariel Sharon Godfather of Terrorism" and "Sharon Enemy of Humanity".

Diplomatic ties

Mostly Hindu, but officially secular, India established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, while remaining careful to retain its traditional friends in the Arab world.

Sharon's visit also aims to boost
military ties

Under the BJP the relationship has blossomed, driven partly by the party's desire to improve ties with the United States and build a common front against Islamist attacks.

India blames its Islamic neighbour, Pakistan, for sponsoring attacks in disputed Kashmir and elsewhere in India, charges Pakistan denies.

But analysts caution against oversimplifying the growing ties between the Jewish and Hindu states as part of a "clash of civilisations" with the Islamic world.

"There are mixed motives at play here and, while the civilisational element is there, it is by no means the only driver," says Varun Sahni, international politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Military shopping list

Most important for India is to gain access to sophisticated military hardware to strengthen its hand against Pakistan.

The purchase of Phalcons - similar to the US Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) - would bring large parts of nuclear-armed Pakistan under Indian surveillance.

India also wants Israeli Arrow anti-ballistic missiles, but this has yet to be cleared by Washington. The $2.5 billion Arrow is the world's only operational anti-ballistic missile system.

The timing of the visit, coinciding with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, and Sharon's own reputation as a hardliner, have worried some who fear the BJP may go a step too far.

"The most worrying for me is Israel as role model," said Sahni.

Although mostly Hindu, India has one of the world's biggest Muslim populations, about 130 million people.

Sharon, who holds talks in New Delhi on Tuesday and Wednesday, is due to spend 11 September in Bombay, where 52 people were killed last month in twin car bombings blamed on Muslim attackers, before flying out that night.