The Palestinian Cabinet moved its weekly meeting to Hebron on Monday, in a symbolic protest against Israel’s addition of a contested shrine in this volatile West Bank city to its list of national heritage sites.
Israel’s decision last week drew widespread international criticism and heightened Palestinian suspicions of Israel at a time when the U.S. is trying to restart peace talks.
Israelis and Palestinians have clashed frequently in the past over two West Bank shrines added to the heritage list: the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, denounced Israel’s move as an “attack on the holy places,” and his Islamic militant Hamas rivals in Gaza called for a new uprising. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the decision was not about politics, but preserving culture.
Over the past week, Palestinian stone—throwers have clashed almost daily with Israeli troops in Hebron, a divided city where 500 Jewish settlers live amid 170,000 Palestinians.
The Cabinet session comes a day after Israeli police forces dispersed masked Palestinian rioters at Jerusalem’s most contentious holy site. And early Monday, gunmen opened fire at an Israeli security vehicle in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, lightly injuring a security guard, police said.
Mr. Netanyahu has tried to calm the recent tensions, saying that Israel’s plan was to protect the holy sites and had no intention of infringing on Muslim freedom of worship. A Netanyahu aide said the list is not meant to delineate future borders, and that it’s premature to talk about concrete renovation plans.
However, Palestinians fear the decision is another sign that Mr. Netanyahu wants to hang on to significant parts of the West Bank, a territory they want for their future Palestinian state, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, convened his Cabinet at the Hebron governor’s office on Monday, instead of its usual venue in the city of Ramallah. The ministers were greeted by a military honour guard.
Mr. Fayyad said Israel’s decision to mark the two West Bank shrines as sites of national heritage violates international law, but also appealed for calm.
“We are not going to be drawn into a cycle of violence,” Mr. Fayyad told The Associated Press after the Cabinet meeting. “We are fully determined, and we count on our people understanding fully well that the best response to this ... is to stay focused” on matters of state—building.
The disputed shrine in Hebron is a 2,000—year—old fortress—like structure built where tradition says Abraham and other biblical patriarchs are buried. Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Israel partitioned the shrine, keeping apart Muslims and Jews, after Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down Muslim worshippers there in February 1994, killing 29 before being bludgeoned to death.
Hebron Mayor Khaled Osaily, said the city’s Palestinians are deeply suspicious of Israel’s latest move.
“The settlers came here for one reason, they want to claim that this is Jewish heritage, and not only for the mosque, but for the whole city of Hebron,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu’s decision, criticized by some in Israel as ill-timed or superfluous, was being portrayed by others as the first victory of a newly formed “Land of Israel” lobby consisting of 39 of Israel’s 120 lawmakers.
The lobby opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to slow West Bank settlement construction, said its leader, Arieh Eldad of the National Union party.
“I was sure our lobby will be effective,” Mr. Eldad said. “We weren’t sure we would have such proof of the effectiveness of concentrated effort.”
In other developments on Monday, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza said German-brokered talks with Israel on a prisoner swap have run aground.
Hamas is trying to trade an Israeli soldier it captured in 2006 for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. In December, there were signs that the two sides were close, but a deal remains elusive. Mr. Zahar on Monday accused Israel of going back on earlier promises and said negotiations had become pointless.