JERUSALEM-- A decision by the U.N. body in charge of preserving historical sites to define West Bank shrines sacred to both Jews and Muslims as Palestinian is "absurd," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday.
One of the sites, in the city of Hebron, has been a flashpoint for decades. Jews call it 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.
Netanyahu issued a statement condemning the UNESCO decision which was made last week. "The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd," the statement said. "If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?"
Hebron is a West Bank flashpoint because it is the only place where Jews live among Palestinians. About 500 Israeli settlers, some of them extremists, live in enclaves near the disputed holy site, guarded by Israeli soldiers who control part of the city of about 170,000 Palestinians.
Earlier this year Israel registered the Hebron shrine as well as a tomb near Jerusalem, believed to be the burial site of the Matriarch Rachel, as national heritage sites.
Both shrines are located in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want as part of their future state. Palestinians view the additions of the shrines to Israel's heritage list as a land grab.
"It is regrettable that the organization established to promote historical heritage sites worldwide is trying for political reasons to detach the ties between the Jewish people and their heritage," Netanyahu's statement said.
"The state of Israel in contrast to its neighbors will continue to preserve freedom of religion at these sites and preserve them for future generations," he said.