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Opposition MKs and an educator yesterday denounced Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's plan to fund student visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Right-wing MKs praised the initiative to visit the tomb, which is believed to hold the graves of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. It is holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Hebron, with small Jewish enclaves among 165,000 Palestinians, has been a hub of conflict between the two groups.

Breaking the Silence, an organization that urges soldiers to come forward about Israel Defense Forces activities, yesterday asked Sa'ar if its members could take part in the student tours to Hebron.

"We don't believe it is possible to visit the tomb and discuss the Jewish nation's glorious past without ... discussing the circumstances that led to the present situation - the paralysis of commercial life, shutting down hundreds of shops, reprisal acts by the settlers and driving thousands of Palestinians out of their homes," Director Dana Golan wrote to Sa'ar.

Ram Cohen, principal of Aleph High School of Arts in Tel Aviv, blasted the plan.

"The tours to Hebron cannot be seen as naive. ... A few meters from the entrance to the tomb there's a path for Palestinians and one for Jews. These are sights reminiscent of German propaganda from 1933 and later," he said. "Hebron is a bad example of all the occupation's ills. You cannot educate to humanism and tolerance and peace while sending students to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs."

MK Nino Abesadze (Kadima ) said Sa'ar's decision was linked to the anniversary of the February 25, 1994 massacre of 29 Arabs by Baruch Goldstein, a settler from nearby Kiryat Arba, in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

"Sacred things like Hebron must not be contaminated with politics," she said.

Meretz leader MK Haim Oron said called Hebron "modern Sodom" and accused Sa'ar of brainwashing Israeli children. "Hebron is not an educational site but a hub of violence, nationalism and racism. It is regrettable that under the guise of teaching heritage, the education minister is brainwashing and sending Israeli students to modern Sodom, i.e. Hebron," Oron said.

MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Taal ) castigated the decision and said forcing children to visit occupied territory is "ideological coercion. It's not the education ministry's job to indoctrinate students."

MK Uri Ariel (National Union ) commended Sa'ar on his decision to add the education system's students to the "half million Jews who visit the tomb annually."

MK Tzipi Hotoveli (Likud ) also backed the plan. "Hebron is the first Jewish city, to which the Jewish people is tied for 4,000 years," she said. "Every student and Israeli should visit Hebron and study the city's historic heritage."

Education Ministry sources said the program would start with Jerusalem students, and would later expand to include all students.