Ma'an News Agency
February 25, 2010 - 1:00am

The Executive Committee of the PLO will not support talks with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu government in light of its decision to declare sites in Palestinian areas "Israeli heritage sites," the body announced after a meeting Wednesday.

"We will reject any kind of negotiations, even indirect talks," Secretary General of the PLO body Yasser Abed Rabbo said after the meeting in Ramallah.

Netanyahu declared the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem - both sites of historical value to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and both located on lands within the 1967 borders of what would be a Palestinian state - Israeli heritage sites, during his cabinet meeting on Sunday. It was not immediately clear what the practical implications of the move would be.

Abed Rabbo said the "extremist right-wing government in Israel is poisoning the climate and of working to destroy any serious steps that aimed at the launch of a peace process."

Reactions to the Netanyahu announcement were immediate, with Palestinians protesting in the streets, and popular resistance groups organizing rallies condemning the declaration of Palestinian sites "Israeli." The move was seen as undermining Palestinian claims to lands that negotiators hope will soon be part of a Palestinian state.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO body, said demonstrations were set for Friday to respond to what she called discriminatory Israeli decisions that threatening Palestinian heritage and holy sites. Netanyahu's decision is a "direct attack on Palestinian heritage and a crime against Palestinian culture."

The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron is already guarded by a heavy Israeli military presence. The mosque is divided, with one part closed off to Muslims. Tourists can enter the Jewish section, and are asked on entry, "Christian or Jewish?" by armed guards as they pass metal detectors.

Following the outcry, Netanyahu released a statement Wednesday, noting "Israel is committed to freedom of religion for worshipers of all faiths at all holy places." He said "the State is constantly acting to ensure proper conditions for prayer, for both Jews and Muslims."

Rachel's Tomb, on Palestinian land in Bethlehem, however, was annexed to Israel following pressure from settler groups. A 30-foot concrete wall circles the tomb, part of a Palestinian cemetery, which is no longer accessible to Palestinian Christians or Muslims unless they get a permit from Israeli officials allowing them to pass through the military checkpoints in the area.

In his statement, Netanyahu said Palestinian "claims" that the decision to declare their holy sites Israeli "are an artificial attempt to distort reality and sow discord."


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