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Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian protesters

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[February 22, 2010]  HEBRON, West Bank (AP) -- A crowd of Palestinian youths pelted Israeli soldiers with stones and empty bottles on Monday, drawing tear gas and stun grenades in the most serious violence in this volatile West Bank city in months.

InsuranceThe clashes erupted a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enraged some Palestinian residents by adding a disputed Hebron shrine to Israel's list of national heritage sites. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state, and saw the Israeli move -- a largely declarative step with few practical consequences -- as a provocation.

Hebron merchants shuttered their stores to protest the decision, and some 100 youths burned tires and threw stones and bottles at Israeli forces in the city. The Israeli military said one soldier was lightly wounded, while Palestinians said three protesters suffered from tear gas inhalation.

Hebron is one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank. Several hundred ultranationalist Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the midst of some 170,000 Palestinians. Under accords signed in the 1990s, the Palestinians control 80 percent of the city and the Israeli military controls 20 percent.

Hebron has been a flashpoint for decades, and Netanyahu's move heightened long-standing tensions around the shrine.

Jews revere the site as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives. Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.

At a special Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu added the cave and a second West Bank shrine, the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem, to the list of heritage sites. The addition of the two West Bank sites reflected pressure from Jewish settlers and other nationalists to expand the number of heritage sites in the West Bank.

The prime minister, who has angered settlers by agreeing under U.S. pressure to slow settlement construction in the West Bank, said the two sites must be preserved because they show Israel's ancient ties to the land.

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"Our existence here doesn't just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength," Netanyahu said. "It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy."

Altogether, about 150 sites are on the national heritage list. Netanyahu convened his Cabinet at one of those sites, Tel Hai, location of a legendary 1920 battle between Arabs and early Jewish settlers in northern Israel.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib condemned the decision and warned it could take the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a dangerous direction.

"We believe that this particular violation is very dangerous because it might add to the religious nature of the conflict," Khatib said.

Monday's clashes were the latest sign of trouble for U.S. efforts to restart peace talks. Negotiations broke down more than a year ago after Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

[Associated Press; By NASSER SHIYOUKHI]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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