Furious Palestinians have clashed with Israeli soldiers and accused Israel of "cultural genocide" after the country's government claimed a sacred tomb in the occupied West Bank as a national heritage site.
The burial site of the biblical patriarch Abraham, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, is located in Hebron, which was yesterday shut down by a general strike in protest at the move as Israeli troops clashed with local youths. One soldier was reported lightly wounded as Palestinians threw stones and bottles and troops fired tear gas and stun grenades. Israel has also placed the believed tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel, in occupied territory in Bethlehem, on the heritage list.
Palestinian MP Hanan Ashrawi, a secular nationalist and former spokeswoman for peace negotiators, said that Israel's move "completes a whole programme of theft".
"It's stealing the land, stealing our resources and now our cultural and historical heritage," she said. "It points to a mentality of cultural genocide. It's been a mosque and been sacred to Palestinian Muslims for centuries. They have to respect that."
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib termed the Israeli move "very dangerous", saying it would reinforce the religious dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the heritage sites are no less important than the Israeli army because they comprise part of the "national emotion''. Mark Regev, spokesman for Mr Netanyahu, called Ms Ashrawi's comments "extremist". "As an Israeli I respect that Muslims have a special connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs," he said. "But I am entitled to ask that they respect the Jewish connection to the same site."
On Sunday, at the behest of Jewish settlers, Mr Netanyahu included the West Bank sites on a list of 150 national heritage areas after at first having refrained from doing so, apparently in the knowledge it would raise tensions with Palestinians. The UN's special co-ordinator to the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, condemned the move yesterday.
The Hebron tombs, known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, are the believed burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. Muslims also revere Abraham, terming the site the Ibrahimi Mosque and Abraham "the companion of God". After capturing the site from Jordan in the 1967 war, Israel began allowing Jews to pray inside its chambers and later supported Jewish settlement in its proximity. Muslims fear that Israel intends to change it into an all-Jewish site.