By Ian Deitch, Canadian Press, Feb 21, 2010
JERUSALEM — Israel is adding two key West Bank holy shrines to its list of national heritage sites, the prime minister said Sunday, staking a claim that angered Palestinians, who want Israel out of the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing a session of his Cabinet at a heritage site in the Israeli Galilee, said the two sites were late additions to the list, reflecting pressure from settlers and other nationalists to widen the heritage category to include Old Testament sites in the West Bank.
One of the sites, in the city of Hebron, has been a flashpoint for decades. Jews call it the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives.
Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.
Hebron is a focus of violence because it is the only place in the West Bank where Jews live among Palestinians. About 500 Israeli settlers, some of them extremists, live in enclaves near the disputed holy site, guarded by Israeli soldiers who control part of the city where about 170,000 Palestinians live.
The other new heritage site is the traditional tomb of the biblical Rachel on the outskirts of Bethlehem, about 12 miles (20 kilometres) north of Hebron. Israel's West Bank separation barrier juts into Bethlehem to put the site under Israeli control. The 30-foot (8-meter) high concrete wall is a constant irritant to Palestinians there, who reject Israel's claims that the barrier is meant to keep out attackers and consider it a land grab.
Altogether, about 150 sites are on the national heritage list. Netanyahu convened his Cabinet at Tel Hai, location of a legendary 1920 battle between early Jewish settlers and Arab attackers.
The prime minister, who angered settlers by agreeing under U.S. pressure to slow settlement construction, said the two West Bank sites must be preserved because they show Israel's ancient ties to the land.
"Our existence here doesn't just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength," Netanyahu said. "It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy."
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib condemned the decision and warned it could take the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a dangerous direction.
"We believe that this particular violation is very dangerous because it might add to the religious nature of the conflict," Khatib said. Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of their future state.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said the list was not meant to draw borders. "The purpose of the list ... is to single out sites that are of great importance to the Jewish people," he said.
Israeli settlers and their backers, who oppose giving up control of any of the West Bank, were pleased with the move and said they would press for additional biblical sites to be added to the list.
Arieh Eldad, a lawmaker from the hardline National Union party, toured the Hebron site Sunday.
"There is no Israeli heritage without the Bible, there is no Zionism without the Bible," Eldad told Israel Radio. "This is the real birthplace of the Jewish people, here it all began."
Also in the West Bank, about 50 Jewish settlers stormed into the town of Jericho in the Jordan River valley late Sunday, the Israeli military said. Media reports said the settlers planned to barricade themselves inside an ancient synagogue. The military said Israeli soldiers were being sent to the area, though it is under Palestinian control.
Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Ramallah, West Bank.