Israel to include West Bank shrines in heritage plan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Sunday it wanted to include two Jewish shrines in the occupied West Bank in a national plan to rehabilitate some 150 Jewish and Zionist heritage sites, drawing condemnation from the Palestinians.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in a statement as saying that Rachel’s Tomb, near the city of Bethlehem, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Muslims and Jews in the tinderbox city of Hebron, would be part of the plan.

“Since I was asked, I would like to make my intentions clear, and this is what will be,” Netanyahu said during a special cabinet meeting held in Tel Hai, a historical site in northern Israel where Jews and Arabs fought battles in 1920.

Israeli media reported that the two disputed sites had been included in the plan only after pressure from nationalist ministers in Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition government.

The Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that the decision was an attempt by Netanyahu’s government to “wreck international efforts aimed at returning to (peace) talks,” which were suspended over a year ago.

Rachel’s Tomb which is revered by Jews as the gravesite of the matriarch Rachel, is guarded by Israeli soldiers and surrounded by a fence.

Israeli security is also tight at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where a Jewish settler shot and killed 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994 before being beaten to death at the scene. Some 400 Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the city, which is also home to some 150,000 Palestinians.

“This particular violation is especially dangerous because it will add to the religious component of the conflict in a way that might bring dangerous consequences,” said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian government in Ramallah.

Also on Sunday, some 50 Jewish settlers and Israeli right-wing activists entered the Palestinian city of Jericho and barricaded themselves inside a synagogue. An Israeli army spokesman said soldiers had evacuated the settlers.

It was unclear whether the Jericho synagogue was part of Netanyahu’s restoration plan, which he said would cost some 400 million shekels ($107 million).

Netanyahu, who last year ordered a limited 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, says he is ready to resume peace talks immediately and without preconditions.

Abbas says peace talks cannot resume without a full settlement freeze that includes East Jerusalem.

Reporting by Joseph Nasr, Tom Perry and Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Jon Boyle