Netanyahu in controversial visit to occupied Hebron

The Palestinian Authority condemns Netanyahu's visit to occupied Palestinian city of Hebron - his first since 1998 - as "provocative", "colonialist" and politically motivated.

HEBRON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu undertook a controversial visit to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian city of Hebron Wednesday, for a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the 1929 killing of Jews there.

The visit, which began in the late afternoon, is a rarity and comes just ahead of Israel's September 17 elections, with Netanyahu seeking to attract votes from the country's nationalist right. He attended a ceremony marking 90 years since 67 Jews were killed by Palestinian rioters in Hebron.

That violence in 1929 erupted amid rising communal tensions in British Mandate Palestine as an influx of European Jewish immigrants agitated for their own independent state.

The massacre in Hebron is considered part of what Palestinians refer to as the "Buraq Uprising" and what Israelis refer to as the "1929 massacres". The violence was the result of a long-running dispute between indigenous Palestinians and European Jewish immigrants over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

A key catalyst was a large protest held on August 15, 1929 by fundamentalist Jewish youth who marched into Jerusalem's Old City chanting "the Wall is ours" and attacked Palestinian Muslim residents in the city's Moroccan Quarter - a historic area that was later bulldozed by Israel following its seizure of Jerusalem in 1967.

The events in Jerusalem set off a spiral of counter-protests and violence across the country, as Palestinians rose up against perceived British support for a European Jewish takeover of Palestine. The Arab uprising killed 133 Jews across British Mandate Palestine, while 110 Arabs were killed, mostly by British forces seeking to suppress the revolt.

The violence also spread to Hebron, with the massacre of Jewish residents there. The scars of violence in the city, which is considered a holy site by both Muslims and Jews, can still be seen to this day.

Status quo

The Oslo peace accords of the 1990s divided Hebron between Israeli and Palestinian zones of control in what was intended to be a temporary system leading up to a final status peace accord.

But the current status quo in the city came about in 1994, after an American Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein used an assault rifle to kill 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque - a site holy to both Muslims and Jews - before being beaten to death by survivors.

The Israeli government faced international censure after the incident for allowing Jewish settlers to set up a shrine and prayer area by Goldstein's grave in honour of his memory. Israel later tore that shrine down, but a new shrine has been built and still receives pilgrimage from Jewish settlers to this day.

At the time of the mass shooting, the Israeli government refused Palestinian demands that all settlers in the occupied West Bank be disarmed and that an armed international force be set up to protect Palestinian civilians. Palestinians accuse the Israeli government of using the ensuing "security" crackdown to exert more of its control over the occupied city.

This included barring Palestinians from areas of Hebron that remained accessible to Jews, a policy that has remained in place to this day. The Ibrahimi Mosque - known to Jews as the "Tomb of the Patriarchs" - was taken over by the Israeli military and divided into separate praying areas for Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

Today, around 800 Jewish settlers live under hefty Israeli army security in the city, surrounded by around 200,000 Palestinians who say Israel is enacting an apartheid policy of separation through a network of military checkpoints that divide Palestinian neighbourhoods and communities.

Palestinians say the Israeli military enforces strict restrictions on their movement while total freedom is given to Jewish settlers, and say there is a systemic lack of accountability for violent settlers and soldiers who assault Palestinians. Israeli policy has forced many Palestinians out of Hebron's historic Old City.

In public statements ahead of elections, Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to extend Israeli jurisdiction to its West Bank settlements, a potential precursor to annexation. 

With polls showing Netanyahu's conservative Likud party neck-and-neck with centrist rivals, he has been playing up his hard tack against territorial concessions to the Palestinians pushed by international peacemaking efforts in recent decades.

'Not a barrier to peace'

The area outside the Ibrahimi Mosque was under heavy guard for the ceremony on Wednesday, which also attracted other Israeli politicians alongside the Prime Minister. Israeli occupation soldiers, explosives experts and sniffer dogs were all present.

In his speech at the ceremony, Netanyahu described the 1929 massacre of Jews as having shaped his political outlook. He pledged a permanent Israeli presence in Hebron as he tries to rally right-wing votes.

"We are not coming to dispossess anyone, but nor will anyone dispossess us," he said. "Hebron will not be cleansed of Jews... We are not strangers in Hebron. We will remain in it forever."

In Israel's last election, in April, just 7.5 percent of Hebron settlers voted for Likud, with most backing parties further to the right, census data shows. Despite Likud's overall gains, Netanyahu failed to form his fifth coalition government, triggering a repeat election set for Sept. 17.

The Palestinian Authority has condemned Netanyahu's visit to the city - his first since 1998, according to Israeli media - as "provocative" and politically motivated.

"This is a purely colonialist, racist visit that Netanyahu is doing at the height of an election battle in an attempt to win votes from the right and the extreme right," the PA's foreign ministry said in a statement.

"We warn against the grave consequences of this raid by Netanyahu, who is trying to win the votes of the Israeli extreme-right," Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.

"This grave escalation... aims to drag the region into a religious war."

Palestinian activists from Youth Against Settlements raised a giant Palestinian flag in the area, while Palestinian youths threw stones and firecrackers at occupation soldiers in the city centre who responded with rubber-coated steel bullets, witnesses said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was among those attending and called for Israelis and Palestinians to learn to coexist.

"Hebron is not a barrier to peace," he said.

"It is a test of our ability to live together, Jews and Arabs, to live decent lives side by side."

After his address, Rivlin visited the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs where he said a prayer, his office said.

Netanyahu is fighting for reelection in a campaign in which nationalist and settler votes will be key in his efforts to build a right-wing coalition.

Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace, as they are built on occupied land the Palestinians see as part of their future state. The United Nations has repeatedly upheld the charge that Israel's settlement program is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.