JERUSALEM – At a time when peace talks with the Palestinians are stalled over Jewish settlements, the Israeli government plans to send schoolchildren on field trips to a disputed holy site in one of the West Bank's most volatile flash points.
Education Minister Gideon Saar says the visits to Hebron, burial site of the biblical patriarch Abraham and home to some of Israel's most radical settlers, are part of a plan to acquaint Israeli youngsters with their heritage.
"It is a place of emotional, religious and historical power," Saar, a leading member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, told Israel Radio on Wednesday. "It is the place where our ancestors are buried and it is part of our history. Whoever objects to this, in my view, is trying to disconnect us from our roots."
Palestinian and Israeli critics both call it an exercise in indoctrination that will ignore the thousands of dispossessed Palestinians living nearby.
"Palestinian children in Hebron are forbidden to walk on the street (leading to the tomb compound) and visit the area — but Israeli schoolchildren can? It's incitement against the Palestinians," said Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron.
"The children visiting will hear the views of ... the Jewish extremists," Amro said. "It will divide the two sides more."
This will be the first time the ministry is sponsoring trips to Hebron, a city bristling with tension because it is the only place in the West Bank where settlers live in the heart of a Palestinian city.
Set to begin next year on a trial basis, it is the latest in a series of steps by Saar that critics say have politicized the education curriculum with a nationalist bent. Saar has pushed for field trips to the section of Jerusalem claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians — and has ordered textbooks for Israeli Arab schoolchildren to remove references to what Palestinians call the "catastrophe" of their displacement as a result of Israel's creation.
Hebron is sacred to both Muslims and Jews because tradition holds that it is the place where their shared patriarch, Abraham, or Ibrahim to Muslims, bought a burial plot. The site is known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The schoolchildren will visit the site.
Israel captured the city when it seized the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. For devout Jews, it was a reclaiming of a biblical birthright. Today more than 600 Jews live in fortified enclaves amid 170,000 Palestinians in Hebron.
Under accords signed in the 1990s, the semiautonomous Palestinian government in the West Bank controls 80 percent of the city and Israel controls the remainder, including the holy site.
This arrangement has turned the Palestinian city center into a ghost town, with entire streets of Palestinian stores shuttered — some by army order during a Palestinian uprising, others because of restrictions on Palestinian movement.
The plan comes at a time when Israel is under fire internationally for refusing to stop building settlements on lands Palestinians want for a future state. The Palestinians refuse to resume talks until the building halts.
Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib called the field trip plan "another provocative step that will generate more tension."
Hebron has a history of violence. In 1929, Arabs killed 67 Jews in a rampage still seared into Israeli minds. By the time Israel was established in 1948, no Jews were living in Hebron.
In 1994, an American-born Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the room in the cave that serves as a mosque and shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers before survivors overwhelmed him and beat him to death.
The field trips are not meant "to impose a certain political perspective," Saar said.
Asked whether the schoolchildren will learn about how Palestinians live in Hebron, Saar replied, "the objective of the tours is mostly historical." He did not say what grades would participate.
Hebron settlers welcomed the planned visits. David Wilder, a community spokesman, said they will "make very clear the importance of this site to the Jewish people."
Amnon Rubinstein, a dovish former Israeli education minister, deplored the idea.
Speaking on Israel Radio, he said the visitors will see "just the part that is holy to Jews and not see the political and ethical price we've paid."
Diaa Hadid, Dalia Nammari and Josh Lederman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.