Dig could unleash unholy Hebron row

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An Israeli archaeologist, Tovia Segev, wants to dig up the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to prove that Abraham is not buried there, thus defusing the conflict between Muslims and Jews over a place holy to both. Mr Segev believes the prophet probably lies in another part of Hebron, which he also wants to excavate.

No shrine on the West Bank has produced greater passions than the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The 400 militant Jews who have settled in the heart of Hebron, surrounded by 120,000 Palestinians, have done so largely to be close to where they believe Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lie buried with their wives. Last year Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler, killed 29 Muslims as they prayed in the Ibrahimi mosque, which stands over the reputed tombs.

The medieval mosque rests on vast blocks of stone which survive from the masonry platform built by Herod the Great.

Mr Segev says that in fact Herod built on an old Edomite or Nabatean prayer site, and if Abraham and his family are buried anywhere, it is at Tel Rumeida, in another part of Hebron.

Abraham is said in the Book of Genesis to have bought the Cave of Makhpela to bury his wife Sarah and to serve as a sepulchre for her family. There is a blocked medieval doorway to the cave in the mosque, but archaeologists who have entered it say it is a series of rooms rather than a natural formation.

Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, says that the problem is that "nobody quite knows when the patriarchs lived or what archaeological evidence to look for". He says it is not known why Herod built there, though he is dismissive of Mr Segev's idea that evidence of the presence of the patriarchs might be found at Tel Rumeida.

Mr Segev says that he has interested Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, in an excavation at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but it is unlikely that any Israeli government will want to offend Jews and Muslims simultaneously. Even if the remains of Abraham's tomb were found at Mr Segev's site, peace would not immediately break out, because Tel Rumeida is occupied by another Jewish settlement.

The 400-page agreement on partial Israeli disengagement from the West Bank signed by Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, is meant to reduce all sources of friction, including the two communities' access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But the mood of ordinary Israelis has been mute and a little cynical, unlike the optimism after the first Washington agreement in 1993. The experience of the past two years shows that the friction in places like Hebron is not ending, and will still produce violence.

Israelis are evenly divided by the peace agreement, polls showing 51 per cent in favour and 47 per cent against. Most say they distrust Mr Arafat, but a majority want to go on talking to him. They do not like the release of 1,300 Palestinian prisoners over the next few days, but they do not identify with the settlers either.

"The fact is that the general public has long since in practice separated itself from the West Bank - it doesn't go there for touring or shopping," said Yoel Marcus, a commentator for Ha'aretz newspaper.

Israeli television, both state and private, probably reflected the public mood by not interrupting its programmes to show Mr Rabin's press conference immediately after agreement was first reached in Taba, Egypt.