PM Grants Heritage Status to West Bank Religious Sites

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem will be added to the list of the country's national heritage sites.

Speaking at a special cabinet meeting in the northern town of Tel Hai, Netanyahu said that right-wing religious party Shas persuaded him to add the two sites to the list.

"Our existence depends not only on the Israel Defense Forces or our economic resilience - it is anchored in ... the national sentiment that we will bestow on the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land," Netanyahu said.

Tel Hai, which is part of the kibbutz Kfar Giladi, was the site of a 1920 battle between Zionist settlers and Bedouin. It was led by Joseph Trumpeldor, the one-armed soldier whose fall in battle is cited in Israeli military lore.

Netanyahu said the two sites would be added to a list that includes areas to be designated for refurbishment. The state will thus allot NIS 400 million to renovate the sites, which include museums and landmarks of key moments in Zionist history.

Legislators from both the left and right were quick to issue statements on the government's initiative.

"This is another attempt to blur the lines between the State of Israel and the occupied territories. Just a little pressure from the right and Netanyahu immediately toes the line," said Meretz chairman Haim Oron.

"This decision casts the prime minister's Bar-Ilan University declaration of two states for two peoples in a ridiculous light."

MK Talab al-Sana (United Arab List-Ta'al) called on the government to declare national heritage sites based on more general criteria that would include places holy to Muslims and Christians.

"The government's decision attests to its cynical and political exploitation of these sites," Sana said.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said that yesterday's decision "adds a religious dimension to the conflict and is liable to result in dangerous consequences."

Lawmakers from right-wing and centrist parties praised Netanyahu. "The strength of the roots that bind our nation gives us the strength to face down challenges of peace and security," said MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima).