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Israeli government to organize school field trips to West Bank

Israel plans to take high school students to a religious site in Hebron that is revered by both Muslims and Jews and was the scene of a 1994 massacre that killed 29 Palestinians.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / February 16, 2011

Israeli Border Police officers stand guard outside the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, Wednesday, Feb. 16. At a time when peace talks with the Palestinians seem irrevocably broken down, the Israeli government is drawing up plans to send schoolchildren on field trips to a disputed holy site in Hebron.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

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Jerusalem

The Israeli government plans to begin organizing high school field trips to a contested West Bank religious site in a move that could reignite tension over a historic flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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The initiative, announced yesterday, could bring hundreds of thousands of Israeli teens to Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, revered in Judaism as the burial site of the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Muslims revere the same compound for its ties to Abraham, referring to it as the Ibrahimi mosque after the man they look up to as a prophet.

While the trips aren't mandatory, Israel says the initiative is an effort to encourage a greater understanding of Jewish history among Israeli students. But the trips could also been seen by Palestinians as a sign of growing political support for West Bank settlers.

The plan, announced by Education Minister Gideon Saar, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, comes as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains frozen after breaking down over the issue of Israeli settlements. Palestinian and Israeli critics of the move say it further underscores that the Netanyahu government prefers settlements to peacemaking.

'Our history is melded with Hebron'

Mr. Saar, who visited the cave Tuesday, told state-run Israel Radio the trips are needed because "our history is melded with Hebron. This is a place that generations of Jews dreamed of. It is the second-most important place for Jews emotionally," he said, the first being Jerusalem.

"Jews always lived in Hebron and our history is something every pupil must know. The pupils of Israel must be exposed to it with their own feet and eyes," Saar added.

The settler presence in Hebron, where hundreds of Jews live in compounds protected by the army in a city of more than a 100,000 Palestinians, is controversial in Israel, especially since left-wing groups highlight the hardships of the occupation caused to the Palestinians by the settlers.

For example, its main street Shuhada Street, once a thriving commercial venue, is closed to Palestinians and open only to settlers, ostensibly for security reasons. Palestinian shops are shuttered, some of them with Hebrew graffiti saying "Arabs out" next to a Star of David. Palestinians often complain of abuse at the hands of the settlers, among the most militant in the West Bank.

A political act?

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