Israel's attempts to establish historical grounds for its existence include stealing, destroying and substituting Islamic heritage, reports Khaled Amayreh in Hebron
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Palestinian children look on as an illegal Israeli settlement expands in the West Bank (top); orthodox Jewish children look on as a model of Solomon's Temple is installed in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and pray that the mosque will be replaced by a replica of the mythical edifice
Tension in the occupied Palestinian territories rose significantly this week following a decision by the rightwing Israeli government to add two ancient mosques in the West Bank to a list of alleged Jewish heritage sites.
The two mosques are the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque, which Israelis call Rachel's Tomb, near Bethlehem, and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, named after the patriarch Ibrahim (Abraham), widely considered the common forefather of both the ancient Hebrews and northern Arabs.
The Hebron mosque, site of a massacre of Arab worshipers by a Jewish terrorist in 1994, is widely considered the fourth most important Islamic shrine, coming directly after the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, the Prophet's Mosque in Medina (both in Saudi Arabia), and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Israeli officials didn't explain the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to add the two Islamic sites to a list of some 130 so-called Jewish heritage sites. Netanyahu said the sites would be renovated "in order to reconnect Israelis to their history".
The two mosques are located in the heart of Palestinian population centres where no significant Jewish population exists. The city of Hebron has a population of over 200,000 and a further half a million living in surrounding villages. There are nearly 400 fanatical Jewish settlers living in the City's Old Quarter, protected round the clock by thousands of Israeli soldiers who routinely repress and harass local Palestinians in order to provide the settlers with optimal security.
The Ibrahimi Mosque is considered one of the most ancient mosques in Palestine and the Levant as it was built around 635 AD.
Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque, which is off limit to Muslims and is located at the northern tip of Bethlehem, has been completely annexed to Israel and is separated from the rest of Arab city by a huge concrete wall that is part of the gigantic barrier Israel has built for the purpose of annexing to Israel large chunks of the West Bank.
When Netanyahu announced the original plan on 3 February, the two mosques were not included, probably due to political sensitivity. However, after Jewish settlers and their allies in the government exerted pressure on the Israeli premier he decided to add the two sites to the original plan. The decision, which comes on the heel of several Israeli provocations, including the suspected assassination by Mossad of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai recently, has infuriated Palestinians.
Several Palestinian towns have already witnessed demonstrations and sporadic clashes with Israeli occupation soldiers. In Hebron itself, school students took to the streets, shouting slogans against the "criminal act". "These murderous thieves are trying to steal our Islamic symbols. We must never allow them to realise their evil designs," said Hazem Hirbawi, one of the protesters. "The Ibrahimi Mosque has been an exclusive Islamic house of worship for 1,400 years. The Israeli claim that this place is a Jewish archaeological site is just beyond the pale."
Hebron's mayor, Khaled Al-Asali, urged UNESCO and the international community to check "this Israeli insolence and arrogance". "We urge UNESCO to protect the Ibrahimi Mosque, prevent its desecration, and act against alterations to its features." He asserted that international law obliges the occupation authorities "not to change the historical heritage of the occupied territories".
Al-Asali denied any Israeli connection to the mosques. "We are dealing with two mosques that have been in existence for hundreds of years in both Khalil [Hebron] and Bethlehem. Hence, this decision by the Netanyahu-Barak- Lieberman government indicates their plan to continue the occupation and the bloodshed in the region." Al-Asali warned that the Israeli provocation was transforming Hebron into a powder keg.
Both Hamas and Fatah -- as well as the rest of the Palestinian political factions -- strongly condemned the "provocative and criminal" Israeli act. Hamas officials called on the Muslim world to take a meaningful stand to counter "this criminal assault on one of Islam's holiest places".
"They are trying to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and now they have decided to seize the Ibrahimi Mosque in Khalil and another mosque in Bethlehem. This means that Israel is carrying out ethnic cleansing of our people, changing the identity of the land. Muslims must not remain silent in the face of this provocation," said Gaza-based Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Haniyeh told reporters that the Israeli decision to effectively annex the two mosques showed that Israel was never sincere about reaching a peace settlement with the Palestinians and was trying instead to liquidate the Palestinian national cause.
Similarly, Palestinian Authority (PA) official Saeb Erekat strongly denounced the Israeli decision, saying that Israel was an occupying power, not a peace partner. "Unilateral decisions to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel show that there is no genuine peace partner, but an occupying power that is intent on consolidating the occupation of Palestinian land."
Several Arab and Muslim countries, as well as the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), have strongly condemned the Israeli decision, with Jordan accusing Israel of adopting measures that derail the peace process. "Jordan condemns this and all other unilateral measures that affect holy places and offend sentiments of Muslims throughout the world," said Nabil Sharif, Jordanian information minister.
The UN has also censured Israel for including the two mosques in a planned Jewish heritage trail, with one UN official reminding Israel that the two sites are located in the West Bank.
The latest Israeli provocation comes 16 years after Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish terrorist and reserve soldier in the Israeli army, sprayed Muslim worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque with a machinegun, killing at least 29 worshipers and injuring dozens of others. An Israeli commission of inquiry looking into the massacre recommended the partitioning of the mosque between Jewish settlers and Muslims, with the settlers taking over the bulk of the site.
Israel also undertook several other draconian measures against the Palestinians, including sealing off numerous roads to the city and separating the town's Old Quarter from the rest of the city. The punitive measures were largely viewed as intended to make daily life for Palestinians so unbearable that they would leave the area so that Jewish settlers could take over.
Goldstein, who was killed on site following his attack, was accorded a saintly status by hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews who came to consider him a hero and great rabbi. His grave in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arbaa became a pilgrimage site.
The bulk of Jewish settlers are religious Zionists who follow an extremist stream of Orthodox Judaism that calls for the expulsion, enslavement or outright physical extermination of non-Jews in occupied Palestine. Some streams of Orthodox Judaism, such as the influential Chabad movement, consider non-Jews in general as subhuman.