Palestinian leaders from both Gaza and the West Bank warned Tuesday of possible violence in response to the Israeli government's decision to include two biblical tombs in Palestinian cities on a list of Israeli national heritage sites.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the Belgian parliament in Brussels that the move is a ``serious provocation which may lead to a religious war.'' Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, called on Palestinians in the West Bank to launch a new uprising, or intifada, in response to the Israeli plan.
The warnings came as dozens of Palestinian protesters threw rocks at Israeli soldiers and burned tires for a second day in the city of Hebron, the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. In Bethlehem, where Israel controls a site in which the biblical matriarch Rachel is said to be buried, merchants observed a strike.
The uproar over the government decision highlights the potential of even a symbolic declaration about contested holy sites to threaten months of relative calm in the West Bank. Both Israel and the Palestinians blame the other side for the year-long impasse in restarting peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included the two controversial sites at the "national heritage" list at the behest of the Shas party, one of his right-wing allies.
"The timing is wrong at this point. Israel would find it easier and less controversial to declare these heritage sites when the peace process is going forward,'' says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert based in Tel Aviv. "Right now it only makes other people believe that the current government in Israel is making yet another unilateral action. Some people will see it as yet another attempt to annex the West Bank.''
Mr. Netanyahu's office accused Abbas of "a campaign of lies and hypocrisy" in a statement Tuesday. "Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs are burial sites dating from more than 3,500 years ago of Israel's forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the nation's foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel - and are worthy of preservation and renovation," the statement said.
Palestinians refer to Rachel's Tomb as Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque and to the Hebron burial cave as the Sanctuary of Abraham. Devout Muslims and Jews believe that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are buried at the site. Jews further believe that Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, and Jacob and his wife, Leah, are buried there.
The battle for control of the Hebron holy site has spurred bloodshed on both sides going back centuries. In recent years, Israel built a concrete wall through a neighborhood on the outskirts of Bethlehem in order to include Rachel's Tomb on the Israeli side of its West Bank security barrier.
Israel's government on Sunday adopted a plan to invest $106.4 million over six years to renovate 150 heritage sites. A statement called the project "of highest national value.''
Responding to the Palestinian protest against the plan, the prime minister's spokesman Nir Hefetz called it a "deceitful and hypocritical'' campaign and insisted that the heritage sites deserve to be renovated.
A nonprofit group headed by Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi issued a statement that called the Israeli heritage plan "a major step in Israel's ongoing attempt to create cultural genocide in Palestine."
Construction work in and around holy sites has a long history of sparking violence between rival religions and sects in the West Bank. In recent years, renovation work near a gate on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City sparked clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators.
In Hebron, Israeli security forces oversee divided access to the burial site between Jews and Muslims.
"Every intelligent person in the world will say that this is a Jewish site. It was a Jewish site thousands of years before Islam ever existed,'' said Noam Arnon, a spokesperson for the enclave of Jews who live in Hebron. ``We demand recognition of the rights of the Jewish people on the holy sites in the holy land.''