Clashes Erupt in West Bank Town over Holy Sites

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Agence France Presse

Clashes Erupt in West Bank Town over Holy Sites

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Palestinian youths throw stones towards Israeli soldiers during clashes in the West Bank town of Hebron. Around 100 Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron on Thursday over an Israeli plan to renovate two deeply contested holy sites in the occupied territory. (Getty/AFP)

HEBRON, West Bank – Around 100
Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of
Hebron on Thursday over an Israeli plan to renovate two deeply
contested holy sites in the occupied territory.

The plan has
infuriated Palestinians and been criticised by the United States as a
"provocative" act that could further complicate efforts to relaunch
Middle East peace talks suspended during the Gaza war more than a year
ago.

Young men hurled rocks at soldiers who fired tear gas and
stun grenades in running clashes near the disputed Tomb of the
Patriarchs, according to an AFP correspondent who saw four Palestinians
detained by soldiers.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said "several illegal riots are taking place in a number of places around Hebron."

"The
protesters are burning tyres and throwing firebombs and rocks at
Israeli security forces, who are responding with crowd-dispersal
means," she added.

A Palestinian was accidentally struck by
rocks thrown by other protesters, according to the AFP correspondent.
There were no other reports of injuries.

Later, around 300
people, including dozens of foreign and Israeli activists, attempted to
march to the disputed site but were dispersed by troops, the
correspondent said.

It was the fourth day of clashes in the
town following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement
that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem would be
included in a heritage restoration plan.

The Palestinians have
expressed outrage, with their Western-backed president Mahmud Abbas
warning of a "religious war" and the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza
calling on West Bank residents to "rise up" against Israel.

US
President Barack Obama's administration, which has been struggling for
months to relaunch peace talks, also criticised the move.

"We
have asked both parties to refrain from provocative and unilateral
actions that undermine efforts to resume negotiations to end the
conflict," said US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

"We have raised this directly with the Israeli government," he added.

Israel
has accused the Palestinians of overreacting, and on Thursday Netanyahu
said the controversy stemmed from a "misunderstanding."

"There
will be no change in the status quo, not at the Tomb of the Patriarchs
and not at Rachel's Tomb," he told Israel's Channel 9 television,
promising "full freedom of worship" for all faiths.

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The Hebron
site, revered by Jews and Muslims alike as the burial place of the
biblical patriarch Abraham, has frequently been the scene of violence.

A
few hundred hardline Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military
protection near the site in the heart of the town of 160,000
Palestinians.

Israelis worship in a part of the Ibrahimi mosque above the tomb that has been converted into a synagogue.

The
latest clashes came on the 16th anniversary of the infamous February
25, 1994 shooting massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in the mosque
by US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein before he himself was
lynched.

The latest tensions came as US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Committee she hoped
peace talks would "commence shortly."

The Palestinians have
refused to return to peace talks without a complete halt to Israeli
settlement growth, though Abbas has left the door open to indirect
talks, provided he receives certain guarantees from Washington.

But
senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo has said Israel's
statements on the holy sites could now make it "difficult, if not
impossible" to launch even indirect talks.

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