Palestinians Warn Netanyahu Against Visiting Flashpoint Hebron Holy Site

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Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz during a visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

The Likud party’s Judea and Samaria campaign staff, headed by Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, is trying to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Hebron before the general election, but Palestinians are warning against such a move, calling it “provocative and defiant.”

The visit to the West Bank city is being tentatively planned for March, after Netanyahu returns from his trip to the United States, as an extension of a tour the Likud leader has scheduled for the same day to the Gush Etzion settlements several kilometers to the north.

But according to sources involved in trying to arrange the tour, which would include the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish enclave in the city, not only would such a visit present complex and expensive security challenges, many of the Jewish residents are liable to protest the visit because of what they say is the premier’s foot-dragging on allowing construction in the area.

“It’s reasonable to assume that the [Hebron] visit won’t come about in the end, for a variety of reasons,” said a source involved in the planning.

Both Hamas and Fatah warned of the implications of such a visit, saying that the Palestinian people would not sit idly by and would challenge any undermining of the holy places.

Dr. Hanna Issa, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian Committee in Support of Jerusalem and Holy Sites, which operates in the West Bank, said in a statement that if such a visit would take place, it would be similar to the visit by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, which led to rioting and some say sparked the second intifada.

“There will be one result if Netanyahu does what he’s planning and visits the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque [the Tomb of the Patriarchs],” Issa said. “This visit is fundamentally a political visit, on the eve of elections, and an effort to gain a few more votes from the right.”

The Fatah spokesman in Hebron, Osama Al-Qawasmi, decried Netanyahu’s readiness to cross red lines for his election campaign and said he is trampling on the status of the holy place, because the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque is an Islamic trust and the Palestinians do not accept its division.

But the source involved in planning the visit stressed that the move was not meant to provoke or spark a conflict with the Palestinians.

“Any attempt to compare this visit to the visit by Sharon to the Temple Mount is inappropriate,” the source said. “This visit is not aimed at inflaming the region or heating up another intifada. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, in contrast to the Temple Mount, is a compound visited by thousands of Jewish worshipers every day.”

Last week Netanyahu visited the settlement of Eli and its pre-military academy, his first visit to the town in some 20 years. The Likud in recent days has been rebuffing claims that Netanyahu’s visits to the settlements are aimed at trying to “crush” Habayit Hayehudi and draw voters away from Naftali Bennett’s party to Likud.

“We have no fight with Habayit Hayehudi,” said a Likud source. “Netanyahu wants to recruit the settlers to vote for him. We estimate that the percentage of Netanyahu voters in Judea and Samaria will be high in the coming elections, primarily because they understand that if the Zionist Union gets even one more seat than Likud, Isaac Herzog will be the candidate whom [the president] will ask to form the government.”

Earlier this month, President Reuven Rivlin made an official visit to the settlement of Kiryat Arba adjacent to Hebron and also visited the Jewish enclave in Hebron. Under heavy security and confronted by a left-wing protest vigil, Rivlin prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and attended a ceremony opening a new visitors center at Beit Hadassah in Hebron, together with the city’s rabbi, Dov Lior. In his address, Rivlin stressed “our right to Hebron” and added a call for dialogue with the city’s Palestinian residents.

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