Israeli heritage site row 'could start intifada'

Israeli President Shimon Peres calls for calm after a plan to restore Jewish heritage sites in sensitive Muslim areas has led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to warn of a third intifada.

By Jessica Elgot, February 24, 2010
Women pray at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem

Women pray at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem

Israeli president Shimon Peres has said that the row over the protection of Jewish and Muslim heritage sites by Israel is being incited by extremists and Hamas.

Hamas’s leader in Gaza has called on Palestinians to attack Israel over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the site of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, in a £69m restoration plan. Both are also important Islamic shrines.

Ismail Haniyeh called on the Palestinians to launch a third intifada against the decision. He said: "Jerusalem is ours, the land is ours, and God is with us. We will not accept these decisions and they will have no ramifications."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called the planned investment in two heritage sites “a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war."

This week, Israeli soldiers clashed with stone-throwing protesters in Hebron.

At a meeting with UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East, Robert Serry, President Peres said: “We don’t need to produce artificial conflicts. Israel will continue to grant freedom of worship to every religion in every holy place.”

“Israel plans to invest significant amounts in infrastructure that will increase the accessibility of holy sites to all worshipers. By doing so it aims to honour and allow freedom of worship to all, irrespective of their faith, and protect the holy sites.

“There is no violation of Muslim or Christian religious rights in any holy place.”

He also asked that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon should be told that “there are parties in the debate who wish to incite unnecessary conflict.”

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to be buried.

Rachel's Tomb is a place of pilgrimage for Jewish women who have been unable to get pregnant. Muslims claim the tomb is actually the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque, built 1,000 years ago.

Last updated: 2:56pm, February 24 2010