The Education Ministry is planning a new program beginning next year in which students will visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

The ministry on Tuesday called the program "experimental" but also said that Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar "sees great significance in getting to know the historic roots of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel."

The site is holy to both Muslims and Jews, whose visits are separated by heavy army surveillance.

School children who currently visit the site are mainly from Orthodox public schools who make the trip independently.

Ministry officials said it would be the first time the ministry would sponsor visits to the site.

In a visit to a number of West Bank settlements yesterday, Sa'ar inaugurated a school for gifted children in Gush Etzion and a continuing education center in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron. He also visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He was accompanied by the new Deputy Education Minister Menachem Eliezer Moses from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Kiryat Arba Mayor Malachi Levinger and leaders of the Hebron Jewish community.

According to a statement by Kiryat Arba's city council, Levinger had initiated the project by asking the ministry to launch a program in Hebron similar to the one it supports in Jerusalem.

The Education Ministry said Sa'ar had "instructed the ministry's Jerusalem district to study the implementation of a district pilot program for the upcoming school year of visits to the Tomb of the Patriarch in Hebron by a number of local authorities that express agreement to participate in the pilot." The ministry said funding had not been discussed and specifics were not decided.

According to Noam Arnon, a leader of the Hebron Jewish community, some 70,000 mostly Orthodox students visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs each year, many from settlements.

The ministry said the visits would not be obligatory and were meant to allow those who were interested to participate.

However, other ministry officials said the proposed program was "clear politicization of the secular public school system. It is not likely that the students will learn about the conflicts involved in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Rather, they will be exposed to one point of view only."

The program to encourage school visits to Hebron would apparently follow a format similar to the school visits to Jerusalem that Sa'ar had intensely promoted. The Education Ministry funds the students' transportation to Jerusalem and the guided tours they receive, with an estimated budget of about NIS 15 million.

According to the Education Ministry, last year some 450,000 school children visited Jerusalem, compared with some 200,000 in the two previous years. According to ministry statistics, about 73,000 teens visited the City of David, part of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, and some 17,000 visited the Temple Mount.

Sa'ar decided that every student should visit Jerusalem at least three times during their 12 years of schooling. He inaugurated the program in the City of David, which is run by the El Ad association. That group, in addition to its tourism and archaeological activities, continues its efforts to settle Jews in the City of David.

Teachers accompanying their classes to the City of David have said that "indoctrination by religious guides influences the students. There is no discussion of the Palestinians who are living a few meters [away], of the multinational history of Jerusalem or the conflicts threatening the city. Only the Jewish side is mentioned."

Sources on the right were quick to praise Sa'ar's proposed Hebron visits project. According to Levinger, it was "a historic decision that will allow hundreds of thousands of students to be exposed for the first time to the city of the patriarchs and its ancient Jewish heritage." Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha council of settlements called the plan, "the right thing at the right time to restore a connection to the roots, history and culture of the Jewish people."

However, the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence said: "It is essential for Israel's students to be aware of the daily reality in Hebron, which is the ugly face of the occupation. Hundreds of group members are prepared to assist the Education Ministry in conducting such tours."