Israelis gather for Passover at disputed West Bank holy site

Friday, April 2, 2010
An ultra-orthodox Jewish man observes Passover celebrations outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron. Hundreds of religious Jews arrived in Hebron to celebrate the holiday of Passover and visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs, traditionally believed to be burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and matriarchs Sara, Leah and Rebecca and is revered by Judaism, Islam and Christianity. (Oded Balilty ~ Associated Press)

HEBRON, West Bank -- Ultranationalist Israelis flocked to a disputed, volatile holy site in the divided West Bank city of Hebron on Thursday, laying their claim while also denouncing the policies of President Barack Obama toward Israel.

Some 10,000 Israelis, heavily guarded by the Israeli military, put on a carnival-like gathering at the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by both faiths, with cotton candy and pony rides. The demonstration coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Palestinians were kept away from the site.

In the only reported incident of violence, Palestinians threw rocks at an Israeli bus which mistakenly drove through a Palestinian neighborhood in the city, slightly injuring a woman passenger, the military said.

Hebron is one of the most volatile places in the West Bank. About 165,000 Palestinians live in the city, but Israeli soldiers control parts of the center, where about 400 Israeli settlers live in buildings that belonged to Jews before they were driven out of Hebron more than 70 years ago.

The Cave of the Patriarchs is revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of the biblical Abraham, the father of both religions.

The Israelis gathered at the imposing tomb to celebrate a decision by Israel's government to include it on Israel's list of national heritage sites.

The listing set off a wave of Palestinian protests, some of them violent. There was also international criticism, including from the U.S. government.

The military officers who gave the crowd estimate spoke on condition of anonymity because no official count was released.

Addressing the gathering, hardline members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party directed their most pointed remarks at the Obama administration, which has demanded a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, claimed by Palestinians for a state.

Deputy Cabinet minister Ayoub Kara told the crowd that "nothing will move us from Hebron, not even Barack Hussein Obama. There needs to be a renewal of building and settlement in all parts of the country."

Member of parliament Tzipi Hotovely said that Israel should "not allow anyone to dictate how much we can build and where."

Netanyahu's party and its allies are on the hawkish side of the Israeli political spectrum. Many oppose any concessions to the Palestinians for peace, like giving up control of West Bank territory.

Those who gathered in Hebron on Thursday are the most uncompromising, opposing the U.S. and Palestinian demand for a settlement construction freeze, a dispute that has set off a deep crisis in Israel-U.S. relations.

Clashes between the two sides are frequent. Palestinians demand that the settlers be removed.

Conflict over the holy site itself has often turned bloody: In 1994, a Jewish settler opened fire at Muslim worshippers, killing 29, before he was beaten to death.

No charges

Also Thursday, Israel's military said it will not file any charges in the death of a Palestinian protester last year.

Thirty-one-year-old Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed when a tear-gas canister fired by troops hit him in the chest during a protest last April against Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

The army claimed Abu Rahmeh was in a group of people throwing rocks at troops. But video footage showed the protesters shouting at soldiers, not throwing anything.

The Israeli military said Thursday it closed the investigation after determining the canister was not intentionally aimed at Abu Rahmeh.

The death occurred near Bilin, a village that has been the site of weekly protests against the barrier. Israel says the structure is for security. The Palestinians say it has seized chunks of the West Bank.

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