Israeli heritage, Jewish heritage or both?
The most worrisome aspect of the decision by the Israeli government to recognize various West Bank-based sites as part of Israel's heritage is the conflation of the state of Israel and the Jewish religion.
Many Arab and international media outlets mistakenly referred to the Israeli Cabinet's decision as a declaration to consider the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb outside Bethlehem part of "Jewish heritage." No such declaration was made. The Israeli declaration on February 21 called these sites part of the state's "national heritage."
Over $100 million (400 million shekels) were allotted by the government to renovate 150 sites, including those in Hebron and Bethlehem, as well as the walls of Jerusalem.
The political danger in declaring these locations deep in Palestinian territory part of Israel's heritage is that it predetermines upcoming negotiations. Many observers see in these actions a sort of Israeli annexation to these locations.
Those who enter Bethlehem are already seeing that Israelis are allowed access to Rachel's Tomb without having to cross the artificial checkpoint that the Israelis have erected deep into Palestinian lands belonging to the Bethlehem governorate.
Declaring archeological sites as part of the Jewish heritage, while controversial, is not as politically problematic as declaring them part of the Israeli national heritage.
Jewish heritage might exist in many locations in the world without these locations belonging to Israel. And as a number of Palestinian citizens of Israel have said, if the government of Israel is looking to renovate archaeological sites, why did they not also include sites that belong to the heritage of the more than 20 per cent Arab population of Israel? Christian and Muslim sites have been abandoned and neglected and in some cases are being totally erased in order to build on their ruins public or private buildings. One such case is the Mamila cemetery, which is being erased to make room for an Israeli museum called, of all things, the "Museum of tolerance"!
Arab media outlets cannot be totally blamed for this confusion. After all, following the Israeli government decision, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, justified it by declaring a 4,000-year relationship between the Jewish people and their forefathers. Israeli right wingers applauded the decision.
Israel's daily Yediot Ahronot quoted right-wing Knesset member Uri Ariel as saying: "This is another symbol of the people of Israel's connection to these areas, which cannot be cut off." Ariel, from the National Union Party, made this statement while touring the Cave of the Patriarchs along with what the paper said were members of the Land of Israel Lobby.
The lobby's chairman, Likudnik MK Ze'ev Elkin, was also quoted as saying that the decision was "a wise one" and was implemented following the lobby's vigorous activity.
"The prime minister accepted our perception and added two historic sites to the list, and we can only praise him for that."
Jewish settlers' leading organisation Yesha Council also chimed in, with its chairman, Dannu Dayan, adding: "A morning which began with a struggle ended with a blessing. This is a significant historic accomplishment for the Jewish people."
Israel, of course, is trying hard to pressure Palestinians to recognize the state as a Jewish state. Israeli opposition leader Uri Avneri wrote a piece on the subject, noting that Zionist and early Israeli leaders wanted Israel to be a state for the Jews and not a Jewish state. But after the 1967 war and the eruption of ideological messianic Jewish national movements, the differences eroded until Israeli right-wing leaders made the Palestinians' recognition of their state as a Jewish state a precondition for Israel to accept the concept of a demilitarized Palestinian state on parts of the occupied territories.
With Islamists responding to the Jewish nationalism with their own religious demands, the entire region will move further into unknown and scary territory.
This is why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned the Israelis about their actions, saying that these declarations will eventually lead all to a religious war. This is certainly not the way forward to diffuse the decades-long conflict.