A decision by the United Nations body in charge of preserving historical sites to define West Bank shrines sacred to both Jews and Muslims as Palestinian is "absurd," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday.
One of the sites, in the city of Hebron, has been a flashpoint for decades. Jews call it 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.
Netanyahu issued a statement condemning the UNESCO decision which was made last week. "The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd," the statement said. "If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?"
Hebron is a West Bank flashpoint because it is the only place where Jews live among Palestinians. About 500 settlers live in enclaves near the disputed holy site, guarded by Israeli soldiers who control part of the city of about 170,000 Palestinians.
Earlier this year Israel registered the Hebron shrine as well as a tomb near Jerusalem, believed to be the burial site of the Matriarch Rachel, as national heritage sites.
Both shrines are located in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want as part of their future state. Palestinians view the additions of the shrines to Israel's heritage list as a land grab.
"It is regrettable that the organization established to promote historical heritage sites worldwide is trying for political reasons to detach the ties between the Jewish people and their heritage," Netanyahu's statement said.
"The state of Israel in contrast to its neighbors will continue to preserve freedom of religion at these sites and preserve them for future generations," he said.
UNESCO, in its biannual session which ended last week, adopted five proposals initiated by Arab member states regarding Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
One of them, in what Israelis charged was a first, used an allegedly politically motivated title to describe Rachel's burial site in Bethlehem.
Referring to the structure as the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb" in its statement, the UNESCO board voted 44 to one, with 12 abstentions, to reaffirm the site was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law."
Israelis charged that Rachel's Tomb was traditionally referred to also by Muslims as such in Arabic, as "Qubat Rachel," although the structure also traditionally included a Muslim prayer house adjacent to a Muslim cemetery.
They charge that the name "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque" only came into use following Arab-Israeli riots in 1996 and was coined by Palestinians for political reasons.
Army Radio on Friday quoted a Foreign Ministry statement as charging the UNESCO decision used "crudely politically deceptive" language and that this distorted and sidestepped the body's cultural mission.
A spokesman also called the UNESCO decision "shameful" and charged it "reeked of political bias."
The UNESCO executive board also expressed "deep concern" over "ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works" at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled, historic Old City.
Israeli media quoted Western Wall and Holy Sites Rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitz, as charging that the international body "responsible for heritage has turned heritage into politics" and was "distorting history."
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