Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron today.
In remarks to journalists in Hebron, Fayyad accused Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his government of “expropriating” or “annexing” the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque and several other sites important to the three monotheistic religions, including Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem. Agence France Presse reported that Fayyad said: “The Palestinian people understand extremely well that this decision has a political dimension, and that it is aimed at Israel expropriating sites that are part of an occupied territory … These sites belong to a future Palestinian state”. According to AFP, Fayyad also reaffirmed “the inalienable right of the Palestinian people on their soil”. AFP also reported that “the head of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO ‘expressed her concern” at the plan and the ‘resulting escalation of tension in the area’. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova endorsed a statement by Robert Serry, UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, that the sites have ‘historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam and to Christianity’.” She also “reiterated UNESCO’s long-standing conviction that cultural heritage should serve as a means for dialogue”. This AFP report is posted here.
The Jerusalem Post reported that “Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited Hebron on Friday and prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs on Friday afternoon, criticizing Israel’s decision to add the site and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem to the list of Jewish heritage sites marked for renovation and preservation. Speaking to reporters after prayers, Fayyad accused Israel of ‘annexing’ the Cave of the Patriarchs. ‘[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s decision is dangerous and political in nature. The site is an inseparable part of the occupied Palestinian territories’, [Israeli] Channel 10 quoted Fayyad as saying”. The JPost added that “US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table. Toner said US displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flash point town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats”. This JPost report is published here.
The declaration, last Sunday, by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and endorsed by his Cabinet, did not announce any legal annexation of the sites. But, this is what the Palestinians fear is the logic.
Palestinians also fear, not without justification through experience, that the allocation of large sums of Israeli money for the maintenance and preservation of these sites as part of Israel’s heritage is likely to entail preferential Israeli access and denial of Palestinian access.
Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser who is now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv (and an advocate of extensive “territorial swap” involving Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan), noted during the week in a press conference in West Jerusalem that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps [of 2000-2001]”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …
Rachel’s tomb it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Jews and Israelis who enter in guarded buses escorted by Israeli security forces. The visitors’ busses pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel guaranteed freedom of worship and access to all holy sites under its control. In practice, I have not heard of Christian groups visiting Rachel’s tomb, though it is not as important in Christian worship. Palestinian Muslims, however, revere not only Ruth, but important historical Muslim figures from a later era who are buried there. And, there is a Muslim mosque on the site. In theory, at least, Palestinian visits are now supposedly to be allowed through permits, though I do not know of any Palestinian who has ever requested such a permit… Maybe Fayyad can ask for one for next Friday’s prayers…
[Once, in June 2004, I made a spontaneous visit to Rachel’s tomb — before it was completely surrounded by The Wall — with two UNRWA colleagues, both female, one was Palestinian. As it happened, because we hadn’t planned the visit, we were all wearing jeans (not well viewed at all by Orthodox Jews, who think long skirts are more appropriate for modest women). We parked the official UN-marked vehicle a few hundred meters away, but directly visible to the Israeli military in the control tower. As we walked forward, one Israel soldier emerged and pointed his automatic weapon straight at us. We explained we just wanted to visit Rachel’s tomb, and moved forward. He waved his rifle menacingly. Then, another soldier emerged from the control tower and ran towards us, while motioning to the one with the pointed weapon to move aside. He told us we were allowed to enter. But he said to hurry, because a bus of Jewish worshippers was due to arrive any minute from Jerusalem, and they wanted the streets absolutely clear in case of any sniper fire. He went inside with us, and stopped anyone from interfering with us. We were able to spend about 30 minutes in meditation and observation on the womens’ side of the tomb, without even a cross look, and we left in peace. It was a rare and actually wonderful experience — thanks in particular to that one Israeli soldier who enforced his government’s official policy that, in theory at least, and on paper, allows people of all faiths to enter all holy sites under Israeli control.]
Clashes continued for a fifth day between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli troops in Hebron about the Israeli government decision to declare the Ibrahimi Mosque an Israeli heritage site.
Ma’an News Agency reported that Jewish settlers, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, marched through downtown Hebron on Friday in support of the Israeli government decision.
Separately, a group of about 300 Israeli, Palestinian and international activists marched in the rain to call for an opening of part of central Hebron which has been locked down under Israeli military pressure for several years in favor of a Jewish settler presence in the neighborhood.