Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian protesters in volatile West Bank city

By Nasser Shiyoukhi, AP
Monday, February 22, 2010

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian protesters

HEBRON, West Bank — A crowd of Palestinian youths pelted Israeli soldiers with stones and empty bottles on Monday, drawing tear gas and stun grenades in the most serious violence to rock this volatile West Bank city in months.

The clashes erupted a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enraged Palestinian residents by adding a disputed Hebron shrine to Israel’s list of national heritage sites. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state, and saw the Israeli move — a largely symbolic gesture — as a provocation.

Hebron merchants shuttered their stores to protest the decision, and some 100 youths burned tires and threw stones and bottles at Israeli forces in the city. The Israeli military said one soldier was lightly wounded, while Palestinians said three protesters suffered from tear gas inhalation.

Hebron has been a flashpoint for decades. Several hundred ultranationalist Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the midst of some 170,000 Palestinians. Under accords signed in the 1990s, the Palestinians control 80 percent of the city and the Israeli military controls 20 percent.

Netanyahu’s move heightened long-standing tensions around the shrine.

Jews revere the site as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives. Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.

At a special Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu added the cave and a second West Bank shrine, the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem, to the list of some 150 heritage sites. The addition of the two West Bank sites reflected pressure from Jewish settlers and other nationalists to expand the number of heritage sites in the West Bank.

The prime minister, who has angered settlers by agreeing under U.S. pressure to slow settlement construction in the West Bank, said the two sites must be preserved because they show Israel’s ancient ties to the land.

“Our existence here doesn’t just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength,” Netanyahu said. “It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy.”

His decision drew criticism from the United Nations Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, who noted that the sites are holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. “I urge Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations, the resumption of which should be the highest shared priority of all who seek peace,” Serry said.

The Palestinian government in the West Bank, Israel’s would-be negotiating partner, and the rival Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip have also condemned the Israeli move.

Monday’s clashes were the latest sign of trouble for U.S. efforts to restart peace talks. Negotiations broke down more than a year ago after Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell has been working for months to try to bring the sides together, most recently by offering to mediate indirect talks. Both Israel and the Palestinians have hinted they would welcome such a way out of the impasse.

In a newspaper interview published Monday, Netanyahu said he was hopeful negotiations would soon resume.

“I think the Palestinians, at least, may be backing down. There are signs that negotiations with them will begin in the foreseeable future,” he told the Haaretz daily.

The Palestinians have said they would not resume negotiations until Netanyahu freezes all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.

Netanyahu has slowed West Bank construction, but refused to stop building in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 war. He claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

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