Israel’s plan to rehabilitate religious sites in the occupied West Bank raises concern in the United Nations’ culture and education body, Unesco.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he intended to include the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs (photo, from aljazeera.net), and several other contentious sites in the West Bank in a $107m heritage investment programme.
The decision sparked anger in the Islamic world and drew international criticism, because it was seen as a move to stamp Israel’s authority on sites which are not recognised as Israeli under international law.
Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director-general, expressed her concern at the announcement that the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, and Bilal bin Rabah Mosque (Rachel’s Tomb) would be included in the plan, the organisation said on Friday.
The European Union (EU) also voiced concern over the decision and said the move would not help the peace process.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy director, “regards the recent decision…as detrimental to attempts to relaunch peace negotiations,” her spokesman, Lutz Guellner, said in a statement.
The EU “calls on Israel to refrain from provocative acts …recognise the importance of these religious sites to all three Abrahamic faiths and support the principle of access for all,” the statement said.
‘There is a pattern’
Speaking on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, condemned the “illegality and illegitimacy” of the Israeli decision.
On Friday, Israel’s heritage site list has been called a “provocation” and an obstacle to peace, by Mark Toner, a US state department spokesman
Palestinians are calling the move an attempt to seize land and holy sites on illegally-occupied land.
Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera: “When it comes to religion, Israel has a plan in changing the nature of Islamic sites and turn them into Jewish sites in a way that serves what they call the Judaisation of the state (of Israel).
“The process of swallowing the Ibrahimi Mosque started with a request to put a candle holder inside it.
“After the massacre that took place in the mosque in 1994 by the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, they divided the mosque between them and the Palestinians. Today, they are confiscating the whole mosque. So we can see there is a pattern.”
As the traditional burial place of important religious figures, the Cave of the Patriarchs is sacred to Jews and Muslims.
Hebron and the shrine itself have long been flashpoints of violence in the West Bank – territory that Israel’s government calls by its biblical names Judea and Samaria.
On Thursday, protests in Hebron turned violent after Netanyahu’s announcement about the heritage programme.
Clashes continued on Friday and Israeli forces used tear gas in order to disperse crowds.
In a symbolic move to assert a Palestinian presence after days of violence, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, attended prayers at the tomb of Abraham on Friday. (photo, from aljazeera.net)
Speaking to reporters after prayers, Fayyad accused Israel of “annexing” it.
Israel has said that it had added the sites to a list of Jewish shrines due for restoration but promised that Muslims would still be free to worship there.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, said on Friday: “There are many places that are holy to all of us so we are not monopolising.
“And in the Cave of the Monarchs, a holy site for Jews and Muslims as they call it, we even made arrangements that everybody will pray.”