A former chief rabbi of Israel on Thursday backed a centuries-old interpretation of Jewish religious law barring the sale of land to non-Jews.

Days after a group of rabbis urged Safed residents not to rent apartments to Arabs, former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reiterated a 500-year-old halakhic ruling barring the sale of land in the Land of Israel to non-Jews - a move that appeared to be a show of support for the other rabbis.

With an increasing number of Arab students enrolling at Safed College, the city has also seen a rise in Arab students renting apartments there.

Rabbi Yosef's comments on Thursday were made at a beit midrash, an institution for religious studies, and contradicted remarks he made last Saturday night to a more general audience in Jerusalem.

Yesterday he addressed halakha, Jewish religious law, in greater detail.

Rabbi Yosef, who has been known to make controversial comments in the past, cited rulings based on the Book of Deuteronomy related to the Jewish people's inheritance of the land, the presence of other peoples on the land, and that the Jews should not make a covenant with them "nor show mercy unto them."

According to Yosef, this has been understood to mean barring the sale of land to non-Jews, based on an interpretation by Rabbi Yosef Caro, the 16th-century author of the codification of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did not, however, explicitly address the issue of renting apartments to non-Jews.

In yesterday's lesson, he said "selling to [non-Jews], even for a lot of money, is not allowed. We won't let them take control of us here."

The former chief rabbi is the spiritual leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which refused to comment on his remarks.

In recent months, some rabbis and right-wing activists have campaigned against the sale of apartments to Arabs, particularly in mixed Arab-Jewish towns.

Two focal points of this effort are the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev, where followers of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg of the Yitzhar settlement have been active, and Safed, where a group of rabbis claimed two weeks ago that the call not to rent to Arabs is supported by halakha. The latter event unleashed a storm of controversy in the Knesset, and led to stone-throwing last Saturday at Arab students' apartments in Safed.

The Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes coexistence between Jews and Arabs, condemned Rabbi Yosef's latest remarks, describing them as racist and having deepened the alienation between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The organization said that the leader of a Sephardi-based movement, a community the Abraham Fund said had suffered from neglect and discrimination for many years, would be expected not to lend a hand to incitement, but instead work to promote tolerance.