JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister tried Thursday to calm tensions over the addition of two West Bank shrines to a list of national heritage sites, a decision that has sparked clashes with the Palestinians and drawn widespread international criticism.
In an interview to Israeli TV, Benjamin Netanyahu called the affair a “misunderstanding,” saying there was no intention to infringe on Muslim freedom of worship. He said the intent was to protect and maintain the sites.
“This is not a political decision. It doesn’t change anything in that sense. It is concerned with preserving heritage,” Netanyahu said.
Palestinians have been protesting in Hebron since Israel declared Sunday that it would add the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in nearby Bethlehem to its list of national heritage sites. The move angered Palestinians, who want Israel out of the territory. The U.S., U.N. and some European nations have expressed opposition.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday the decision was “provocative” and unhelpful to the goal of restarting peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the region could plunge into a “religious war” over the issue.
Jews revere the Hebron site where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives. Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.
Rachel’s Tomb is the site where Jewish tradition holds that Jacob’s wife Rachel was buried.
In Hebron on Thursday, Palestinian protesters and their supporters clashed with Israeli troops on the 16th anniversary of the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the holy site by a Jewish settler.
Israeli forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at dozens of demonstrators who chanted anti-Israel slogans near the site, where American-born Baruch Goldstein carried out the 1994 shooting attack.
Protesters said they were attempting to approach the shrine when troops began firing tear gas at them. The military said soldiers were responding to demonstrators hurling rocks at them. Four people were injured slightly.
Hebron has been a flashpoint for decades. Several hundred ultranationalist Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the midst of some 170,000 Palestinians. Under accords signed in the 1990s, the Palestinians control 80 percent of the city and the Israeli military controls 20 percent.
Netanyahu’s decision to add the shrine to Israel’s heritage list heightened long-standing tensions around the shrine.