Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insisted Thursday that the decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on the list would not in any way change the status quo at the site, which has long been shared by Jews and Muslims.
He called accusations being made by Palestinians and others “an artificial attempt to distort reality and sow discord.”
Two days after Palestinian Authority (P.A.) chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned during a visit to Brussels that it could ignite a “religious war,” Palestinians clashed Thursday with Israeli soldiers in Hebron. The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad has called for a “day of anger” on Friday.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration regarded the move as “provocative,” and that U.S. diplomats had conveyed that message to Israeli officials.
On Thursday the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) weighed in, demanding that the United Nations act against “this Israeli unilateral aggression.”
Earlier, a spokesman for U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said he raised with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak his concerns about “the inclusion of holy sites in the occupied West Bank on an Israeli heritage list.”
In announcing the expansion of an existing list of sites with religious and national significance to ancient and modern Israel, Netanyahu on Sunday mentioned that they would include the Cave of the Patriarchs and another site in territory claimed by the Palestinians – Rachel’s Tomb between Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem, the traditional burial site of Rachel, the wife of the biblical patriarch, Jacob.
Although a predominantly Arab city today, Hebron’s importance to Jews goes back to the foundation of their faith. According to the Old Testament (Genesis 49), Abraham bought a cave known as Machpela at the site to bury his wife, Sarah and was himself also buried there, along with Isaac and Jacob, as well as Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Jacob’s first wife, Leah.
The Old Testament also records that Hebron was the capital of the kingdom of Israel for seven years before King David moved to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5). Rabbis consider the Cave of the Patriarchs the second holiest site in Judaism, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hebron as a city is also one of Judaism’s four holy cities, the others being Jerusalem, Tiberias and Tzfat.
Historians say Hebron had a small, almost continuous Jewish presence for thousands of years until 1929, when it ended abruptly after 67 members of the then 800-strong Jewish community were killed during three days of Arab riots.
Shortly after Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day War Jews began to return to Hebron in small numbers and today some 500 are reported to live in the historic Jewish Quarter, amid tight security.
In 1994 a deranged Israeli opened fire on Muslims in a mosque at the site, killing at least 29 people before he was overpowered and killed.
The Muslim claim to the Cave of the Patriarchs is based on the Islamic precept that major biblical figures, from Adam to Jesus, were Muslim prophets. Thus the mosque at the site is known as Ibrahimi (Abraham) mosque.
In recent days, new claims about the Islamic significance of the site have appeared in Palestinian media.
In a press report Thursday, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency described the Ibrahimi mosque as Islam’s “fourth holiest” site.
The P.A. news agency WAFA cited a London-based organization called the Palestine Return Center as describing the Ibrahimi mosque as “a mosque that Abraham built and is buried in.”
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, The structure surrounding the cave and still standing today was built by King Herod some 2,000 years ago. Islam reached Hebron with the Muslim conquests in the 7th century AD.
According to the left-wing Middle East scholar Juan Cole, the five holiest sites in Islam are, in order, in Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Najaf and Karbala (although the city of Kairouan in northern Tunisia also holds claim to the position of fourth holiest in Islam.) An online list of the 15 “holiest sites in Islam” does not include Hebron.
At a press conference in Ramallah Wednesday, veteran PLO activist Hanan Ashrawi called Netanyahu’s decision a “direct attack on Palestinian heritage and a crime against Palestinian culture.”
The Cave of the Patriarchs is divided into Jewish and Muslim sections, and for most of the year, Jews and Muslims have free access to their designated spaces. For two 10-day periods each year, each group has access to the entire site while the other is barred from entering.
“We know that it is also a holy place for Muslims,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “We honor both.”
“We are not changing the status quo at the site and we will not, in any way, harm freedom of worship for Muslims, just as we will preserve freedom of worship for Jews.”
The U.N. body known as the Bureau of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People slammed the Israeli move.
“Laying official claims to religious and historical places throughout the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and attempts by the Government of Israel purporting itself to be the sole custodian of those sites is yet another measure aimed at consolidating Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands,” it said in a statement.