Protests over Israeli move on religious site


ISRAELI TROOPS clashed in Hebron yesterday with a crowd of angry Palestinians protesting against the Israeli government’s decision to add the West Bank city’s Tomb of the Patriarchs to a list of Israeli heritage sites.

Originally the government list of heritage sites, which will receive extra funds to boost tourism, didn’t include any buildings in the occupied West Bank. Following protests from Jewish settlers and right-wing parties the list was amended ahead of Sunday’s cabinet vote, to include the Hebron site and Rachel’s Tomb, at the northern edge of Bethlehem.

Hebron residents declared a general strike and threw stones and bottles at soldiers who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Demonstrators accused Israel of planning to restrict Muslim access to the shrine, also known as the al-Ibrahimi mosque.

The Mufti of Palestine, sheikh Muhamed Hussein, claimed Israel “devoted all of its efforts to steal Islamic holy sites to change their Arab and Islamic character to prove the country is Jewish.”

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, the biblical burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is holy to both Jews and Muslims and has been a flashpoint for religious tension in the past. Some 500 Jewish settlers live in an Israeli-controlled enclave close to the tomb, surrounded by 170,000 Palestinians under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the decision to add the tomb to the heritage list. “Our existence depends not only on the Israel Defence Forces or our economic resilience – it is anchored in the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the future generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority expressed its concern over the decision and the Fatah party of president Mahmoud Abbas described the Israeli move as an attempt to harm international efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The UN’s special co-ordinator for the Middle East, Robert Serry, also criticised the Israeli decision, noting that some of the sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are also of historical importance to Muslims and Christians.