'Solomon's walls' stir Palestinian fury

Feb. 23, 2010 at 2:27 PM

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- An Israeli archaeologist's discovery of fortifications in Jerusalem that she says date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and the government's plans to include two West Bank shrines as part of Israel's national heritage has incensed Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they see this as a new plot to scupper their dream of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli police in Hebron after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that the two fiercely contested sites in the West Bank would be included in a $100 million plan to restore national heritage sites.

These are the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, 12 miles north of Hebron.

The Hebron site has been a source of conflict for decades. Jews call it the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Issac and Jacob were buried with three of their wives. The site is also sacred to Muslims, who also revere Abraham. They call it the al-Ibrahimi Mosque.

In 1994, a hard-line Brooklyn-born Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, shot to death 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in the shrine. He was beaten to death by those who survived the slaughter but remains an iconic figure for Israel's far-right.

Hard-line settlements have grown up around the city, where a few hundred militant settlers maintain an enclave heavily protected by Israeli troops amid a Muslim population of 160,000. The settlers converted part of the al-Ibrahimi Mosque into a synagogue.

The tomb of the Jewish matriarch Rachel stands in an Israeli enclave in Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. It's surrounded by a 24-foot-high concrete wall.

"We strongly condemn this decision which yet again confirms the Israeli government's determination to impose facts on the ground," declared Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Netanyahu said the sites must be preserved by the state because they show Israelis owned the land in ancient times, a key element in Israelis' claim that they have a legitimate and historical right to the West Bank, which they call by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria.

The Israeli government appears to be seeking to elevate the heritage issue, possibly to counter growing international outrage at Israel's continued occupation and its invasion of the Gaza Strip a year ago in which 1,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed.

In recent weeks, hard-line settlers, who vowed they will never abandon the West Bank under any peace agreement with the Palestinians, have become increasingly aggressive amid U.S. efforts to halt settlement activity as a means of reviving the long-stymied peace process.

On Sunday, 80 settlers stormed into the biblical town of Jericho seeking to pray at two ancient synagogues there even though the area is under Palestinian control. Israeli troops removed the settlers.

Right-wing activists vowed Monday they would go on entering Jewish sites in Palestinian areas as part of a campaign to reclaim areas of the West Bank -- even as Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised to stop them.

But it is the discovery of the ancient stone fortifications in Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar that is likely to cause the biggest storm in the unfolding conflict over both sides' claims to historical legitimacy as possessors of the disputed land.

Jerusalem is the flash point. It is the emotive center of the territorial dispute and has become one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues, possibly the most intractable, in the entire peace process.

Both sides claim the holy city as their capital. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and declared the reunited city their eternal capital.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they are driving to proclaim. They claim the Israelis, who are building settlements there, are driving Arabs out to eradicate the Palestinian presence.

Mazar claims her discovery establishes that Jews possessed the city in the 10th century B.C., as described in the Bible.

However, other experts maintain that biblical references regarding the existence of an Israelite monarchy in Jerusalem in that period is largely mythical.

Mazar, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described her find Monday as "the most significant construction we have from First Temple days in Israel.

It means that at that time, the 10th century, in Jerusalem there was a regime capable of carrying out such construction."

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