What has Netanyahu done?

Palestinians are furious at an Israeli government decision to classify the very important Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron (as well as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem) as Israeli heritage sites.

It was not a decision to annex these two sites to Israel. It was a decision to allocate money to upgrade and rehabilitate the sites. But, in the current context, the decision has been understood as yet another move by the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to restrict, if not exclude, Palestinian and Muslim claims + interests.

It is being received and perceived as an act of incitement.

There has been a firestorm of reaction. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is busy in Paris, and hasn’t said anything himself. But a representative of Abbas denounced the move on Palestinian television tonight, and argued that this puts into further question any idea about a resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority Minister of Awqaf (Muslim trusts), Mahmoud Habbash, in Cairo for a meeting, denounced the move as “crazy” and “war-like”.

Both sites are revered by both religions. But sites contain graves of ancestors revered by both religions. For Muslims, both sites are also mosques. And both sites are in the occupied West Bank.

The Ibrahimi Mosque contains the graves of Abraham (a Jewish Patriarch, regarded as a prophet in Islam) and his wife Sarah and some of their descendants. It is part of a structure that has a wall and enclosure believed to have been built by Herod — who also built the very similar Western Wall in the Old City of East Jerusalem that is believed to be the retaining wall of what once was the Second (and possibly also the first) Jewish Temple.

Since Israel’s capture of the West Bank in the June 1967 war, Israel has initiated a system of “sharing” the mosque between Jews and Muslims that has gradually become increasingly restrictive. The “sharing” regime intensified (to the detriment of Muslim use of the mosque) following a massacre at the Ibrahimi mosque in late February 1994, committed by Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish immigrant to Israel living in the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement who walked in his Israeli military uniform past Israeli guards and shot randomly at Muslim men praying at dawn during Ramadan (Goldstein was beaten to death on the spot, but his grave in Kiryat Arba is now a site of reverential visits for some in the settler movement).

Now, Muslim worshippers must go in one entrance, through a checkpoint-like security procedure. Jewish worshippers go in through a separate entrance, without restrictions.

The muezzin, who chants the call to Muslim prayer five times a day, is escorted by Israeli soldiers every time he mounts the stairs in the minaret to perform his duty.

In recent years, when Jewish holidays coincided with Muslim holidays, the Ibrahimi mosque was closed to Muslims. The past two years, this meant during important days during the sacred month of Ramadan.

A heavily-guarded Jewish settler presence in downtown Hebron, from which Palestinians are now excluded, has become a flashpoint.

The Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem, now totally reserved for Jewish worship, houses the tomb of the Jewish matriarch Rachel — next to an ancient Muslim cemetery. The mosque housing Rachel’s tomb is now totally surrounded by an 8-meter (24-foot) high concrete Wall.

In today’s reaction, Hebron merchants observed a day of strike, and Palestinian youths burned tires in the streets and threw stones at Israeli forces in Hebron, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. AP described it as “the most serious violence to rock this volatile West Bank city in months”.

The PLO Negotiations Affairs Department issued a statement in the name of chief Palestinian Negotiator Dr. Saeb Erakat, which “condemned the announcement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to include several Palestinian heritage and archaeological sites within the occupied Palestinian territory on a list of Israeli ‘heritage sites’. The Israeli list includes the Mosque of Ibrahim in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, Herodion (South of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem), Qumran (South of Jericho) and Susiya (South of Hebron). ‘The unilateral decision to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel [sic] shows there is no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on consolidating Palestinian lands … The Quartet and the rest of the International community are putting their efforts to restart negotiations. The announcement shows once again that Mr. Netanyahu is actively working to sabotage the two-state solution. Control over archeological and tourist sites are part of the continuing Israeli settlement enterprise … Israel continues to profit from its occupation of Palestinian lands and its exploitation of Palestinian resources. This must stop for there to be the foundation for good neighborly relations between two states … We call on the international community to put an end to Israel’s settlement activity and to denounce the Israeli decision’.”

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) also issued a statement condemning the decisions taken by the Israeli government “to include the ‘Tomb of the Patriarch’ (the Ibrahimi Mosque) in Hebron and ‘Rachel Tomb’ (Bilal Ben Rabah Mosque) in Bethlehem on the list of Israeli archaeological sites. PCHR reminds that this decision was taken on the eve of the 16th anniversary of the mass killing of 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by an Israeli settler, Baroch Goldstein, on 25 February 1994. PCHR further emphasizes that the continued international tolerance towards crimes committed by Israel, the Occupying Power, serves to encourage it to commit more of such crimes. Accordingly, PCHR repeats its calls for the international community to provide protection for Palestinian civilians, their property and their religious sites”. The PCHR statement included a warning “of possible escalation of the situation in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territory] given the religious status of the Ibrahimi Mosque for Muslims, and holds Israeli occupation authorities responsible for any escalation”. It also called for a meeting of states who are High Contracting Parties to tghe Geneva Conventions, “to ensure Israel’s respect for the Convention in the OPT, and to immediately provide protection for Palestinian civilians and their civilian and cultural property” as well as for placing “cultural property under enhanced protection, if ‘it is cultural heritage of the greatest importance for humanity’ and ‘it is not used for military purposes’.”

The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, also issued a statement expressing his concern “at the announcement of the Israeli government regarding holy sites in Hebron and Bethlehem and the heightened tensions that have
resulted. These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well. I urge Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice
negotiations, the resumption of which should be the highest shared priority of all who seek peace. I also call for restraint and calm. As I underscored in my visit to Hebron last week, I would like to see more positive steps by Israel to enable Palestinian development
and state-building in the area and throughout the West Bank, reflecting a genuine commitment to the two State solution”.

These two sites — the Ibrahimi Mosque + Rachel’s tomb — were reportedly not on Netanyahu’s original list, but were added after prodding from some of his cabinet colleagues…

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, held at a symbolic site in the far north of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that
“Today, we are due to approve a comprehensive plan, the largest ever, to strengthen the national heritage infrastructures of the State of Israel. We will do four things: We will rehabilitate archaeological and Zionist heritage sites. We will build and enrich archives and museums. We are talking about approximately 150 sites. We are due to invest almost NIS 400 million, with the assistance of 16 Government ministries. We will create two trails: An historical trail of archaeological sites from the Biblical, Second Temple and other eras in the history of the Land of Israel and a trail of the Israeli experience that joins the main sites which relate the history of a People’s return to its Land … we will enrich the State of Israel and its heritage so that Israeli families will be able to follow the historical trail and the Israeli experience trail, and become familiar with and strengthen their ties with this Land. I think that this has been long overdue. We started during my first term as Prime Minister, with the rehabilitation of 50 heritage sites, including this site [Tel Hai, near Kiryat Shmona] . The rehabilitation that you see here came about as the result of that decision. But we will expand this to 150 sites. These sites include the Hebrew song archives and old films that relate the history of the early Zionist communities here, as well as writings, paintings and many other things that we want to save. I think that this project is of the highest national value and, for at least some of the sites that have to do with global cultural assets, of the highest international value. People must be familiar with their homeland and its cultural and historical vistas. This is what we will instill in this and coming generations, to the glory – if I may say – of the Jewish People … I would like to add three short comments. 1) The list of sites submitted here is neither closed nor final. It can and will certainly include other sites. I also intend to include Rachel’s Tomb, to the rehabilitation of which the Jewish Agency has allocated NIS 20 million, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs [the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron]. Since I was asked, I would like to make my intentions clear, and this is what will be” …

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