Palestinians expressed outrage on Wednesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Jewish enclave in the West Bank city of Hebron to make an address at a ceremony marking 90 years since the 1929 massacres of Jews in the city and elsewhere.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh called Netanyahu's visit to Hebron a dangerous escalation and an attempt to taunt Muslims in the region, for whom the city and especially the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in it are of serious religious significance.
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"We warn against the dangerous repercussions of Netanyahu's step, which is being carried out in order to win the votes of [Israel's] extreme right wing. The international community ought to act to prevent such aggression," he stated.
Speaking at the ceremony earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu said that the Israeli government is "not here to disinherit anyone, but no one will disinherit us."
"We came to Hebron to express our victory," the premier said, adding that "the people of Israel are deeply entrenched in Hebron. From our very beginning, we belonged here. Blood-thirsty terrorists carried out this horrible massacre 90 years ago. They were certain that with that they were uprooting us from this place for good. They were wrong. We have built [the settlement of] Kiryat Arba, we returned to Hebron."
The ceremony took place in the plaza in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site that is holy to both Jews and Muslims and has been a flashpoint in a town with a small population of Jewish settlers who live in uneasy coexistence with the Palestinian population of Hebron.
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Netanyahu has rarely attended such events in the heart of Hebron's Jewish enclave. A number of events have been planned there in the course of the day Wednesday, attended by public figures, including a conference attended by President Reuven Rivlin on the history of the unrest in the country in 1929. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is due to attend a memorial ceremony at Hebron's Jewish cemetery. The main memorial event began at 5 P.M.
In advance of the prime minister's visit, the heads of the Waqf, the Islamic religious trust, called for a mass Muslim prayer vigil at the mosque at the Tomb of the Partriarchs. There were also calls by Palestinians in the city to fly black flags and demonstrations against the visit.
In the course of one week in August 1929, 133 Jews were killed in the unrest around the country. In addition 110 Arabs died, almost all at the hands of British security forces. By far the worst of the violence against Jews took place in Hebron, at the time a city of some 21,000 residents, of whom some 700 were Jewish and the remainder Arab Muslims.
In 1994, the Tomb of the Patriarchs was the site of a massacre carried out by an American Jewish immigrant physician, Baruch Goldstein. In the wake of those killings, an international supervisory force was established in the city. The force was later expanded as part of the Wye River Memorandum, signed in 1998 by Netanyahu, then serving his first term as prime minister, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Control of the city was divided between Israeli forces and the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu declined to renew the mandate of the international observer force when it expired earlier this year.
Earlier this week, the prime minister opened the new school year on Sunday with a visit to the West Bank settlement of Elkana, where he said that he aspires to apply Israeli sovereignty in all West Bank Jewish settlements. Speaking just over two weeks before the September 17 Knesset election, the prime minister vowed that there would be "no more uprooting" of West Bank settlements.
Jack Khoury contributed to this report.