Ben Lynfield
The Christian Science Monitor
February 16, 2011 - 1:00am

The Israeli government plans to begin organizing high school field trips to a contested West Bank religious site in a move that could reignite tension over a historic flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The initiative, announced yesterday, could bring hundreds of thousands of Israeli teens to Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, revered in Judaism as the burial site of the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Muslims revere the same compound for its ties to Abraham, referring to it as the Ibrahimi mosque after the man they look up to as a prophet.

While the trips aren't mandatory, Israel says the initiative is an effort to encourage a greater understanding of Jewish history among Israeli students. But the trips could also been seen by Palestinians as a sign of growing political support for West Bank settlers.

The plan, announced by Education Minister Gideon Saar, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, comes as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains frozen after breaking down over the issue of Israeli settlements. Palestinian and Israeli critics of the move say it further underscores that the Netanyahu government prefers settlements to peacemaking.

'Our history is melded with Hebron'

Mr. Saar, who visited the cave Tuesday, told state-run Israel Radio the trips are needed because "our history is melded with Hebron. This is a place that generations of Jews dreamed of. It is the second-most important place for Jews emotionally," he said, the first being Jerusalem.

"Jews always lived in Hebron and our history is something every pupil must know. The pupils of Israel must be exposed to it with their own feet and eyes," Saar added.

The settler presence in Hebron, where hundreds of Jews live in compounds protected by the army in a city of more than a 100,000 Palestinians, is controversial in Israel, especially since left-wing groups highlight the hardships of the occupation caused to the Palestinians by the settlers.

For example, its main street Shuhada Street, once a thriving commercial venue, is closed to Palestinians and open only to settlers, ostensibly for security reasons. Palestinian shops are shuttered, some of them with Hebrew graffiti saying "Arabs out" next to a Star of David. Palestinians often complain of abuse at the hands of the settlers, among the most militant in the West Bank.

A political act?

But Saar said the trips were not intended to impact on the political debate. "There is no attempt to impose one view on the discussion, no coercion," he said.

However, Gabi Solomon, a professor emeritus of education at Haifa University, says the plan is "a political act disguised as an act of conveying Jewish tradition."

In Mr. Solomon's view, bringing pupils to the cave lays bare the real intentions of the government, even if rhetorically Mr. Netanyahu has accepted a two state solution to the conflict. ''This is the hidden curriculum. The right wing continues to entertain the possibility that we will hold onto all of the Land of Israel. What Saar is doing is part of the hidden agenda of strengthening the Israeli hold in the West Bank, just like building settlements. This is the real agenda.''

Saar often gives expression to the right-wing nature of the Netanyahu government. In 2009 he was architect of a program that sent senior army officers into high schools to advise teachers on how to inspire students to enlist in combat units.

Solomon questioned whether the school trips would make reference to settler Baruch Goldstein's 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs. ''Will this be mentioned or does the story begin and end with Abraham?'' he asked.

Settlers welcome the initiative

Settlers are pleased with the plan. In the view of Hebron settler spokesman Noam Arnon, Saar's initiative is very welcome.

"This is essential for Israeli youth who grow up without knowing their own history and roots and are cut off from the historical heritage that ties them to the nation and its land. I hope it is carried out on a large scale."

Mr. Arnon would like the visiting youth to stop at a settler museum that recalls the 1929 massacre against the city's Jewish population by Palestinians. "They have to learn about the first big terror attack, what happened, why, and how to make sure it does not happen in the future."

Yehuda Shaul, an activist in the dovish soldiers' group Breaking the Silence, says his antioccupation organization would be glad to play a role in the tours.

"The pupils should know that for 800 settlers the city has been turned into a ghost town, all Palestinian market life has been shut down, and that families are sealed in their houses and have to climb ladders to leave their homes because they live on sterile roads where only non-Arabs can walk," he says. "If we're serious about Jewish values, we have to discuss those issues."

Hebron Mayor Khaled Osaily says Saar's plan can only escalate tensions. "This is another step proving they are against peace and prefer settlements over peace," he says.

"The Ibrahimi mosque is absolutely an Islamic mosque," he adds. "We welcome any visitor from any religion but not in this way. This creates more confrontation.


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