Monday, March 01, 2010

Israeli settlers celebrate amid Hebron tensions

HEBRON, West Bank — The settlers sang, danced and drank themselves into a stupor, ignoring the growing outrage of the Palestinians who make up the vast majority of this West Bank town.

As they do every year on the Jewish holiday of Purim, the settlers donned costumes -- one was a clown, another a Palestinian -- and drank and danced to celebrate a biblical miracle that saved the Jews from the ancient Persians.

But this year the holiday comes amid growing unrest over an Israeli plan to renovate the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a flashpoint holy site revered by Jews and Muslims in the heart of the town of more than 160,000 Palestinian Muslims.

There have been days of clashes since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wanted to include the burial site of the biblical figure Abraham in a national heritage plan.

The move has sparked international outrage and the United States has attacked it as a "provocative" act that could further imperil its hope of relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended during the Gaza war over a year ago.

But on Sunday hundreds of settlers in Hebron expressed little concern as they waved Israeli flags and marched through the ancient streets guarded by a roughly equal number of tense Israeli soldiers.

Jews are encouraged to celebrate the two-day holiday by drinking large amounts of alcohol, and on Sunday many revellers staggered through the streets drunk at midday.

"The Tomb of the Patriarchs is all we have," declared rabbi Baruch Marzel, who heads the 600 Jewish settlers installed in an enclave in the heart of the Palestinian city.

"If we do not have rights to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, (then) we do not have the right to be a nation."

The West Bank town and the holy site have for decades been the scene of violent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Muslims revere Abraham, or Ibrahim, as a prophet and worship at a mosque built above the tomb.

The Ibrahimi mosque is split in half and shared uneasily, with Jews worshipping in a part that has been converted into a synagogue.

This year Purim falls close to the anniversary of the infamous 1994 shooting massacre of 29 Palestinians inside the mosque by the US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein, who was beaten to death by survivors in the resulting melee.

Amazingly, there were no disturbances aside from occasional volleys of stones thrown by small groups of Palestinian youths. At one point the soldiers made the settlers stop to allow Palestinian children to go home from school.

But Abdelaziz, a 49-year-old grocer watching the procession go by, was hard-pressed to conceal his disgust.

"They make fun of us each year. They are even happier than the previous years because of the announcement by Netanyahu," he seethed.

"It is a provocation," said Adnan al-Jaabar, an 18-year-old Palestinian. "The sanctuary is ours, not the Israelis'."

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