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Israeli leader's visit roils West Bank city

Hanukkah celebration inflames tensions at ’94 Palestinian massacre site by The Associated Press | November 29, 2021 at 3:50 a.m.
Palestinians scuffle with Israeli forces during a protest against the planned visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Hebron's holiest site, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Israeli controlled part of the West Bank city of Hebron, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

HEBRON, West Bank -- Israel's president visited Sunday one of the most contentious spots in the occupied West Bank to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, sparking scuffles between Israeli security forces and protesters.

President Isaac Herzog said he was visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to celebrate the ancient city's Jewish past and promote interfaith relations. But his visit to the city, known for its tiny ultranationalist Jewish settler community and difficult living conditions for Palestinians, drew widespread criticism from Palestinians and left-wing Israelis.

About 1,000 Jewish settlers live in small enclaves guarded by Israeli soldiers in the city, surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinians who must cross through Israeli checkpoints to move from place to place.

The Jewish residents of Hebron are among the most hard line of the roughly 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future independent state. The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

There is frequent violence between the sides and the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by Muslims and Jews, was the site of a massacre by a Jewish settler who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994.

Herzog made no mention of the 1994 massacre but paid homage to the more than 60 Jews killed by Palestinians in Hebron during riots in 1929, noting that a relative had survived the fighting.

"I have no doubt that she would have been very moved by the fact that one of her descendants is lighting Hanukkah candles in the Cave of the Patriarchs as the president of the state of Israel," he said during a ceremony marking the first night of the eight-day holiday.

In his speech, he made a brief call for "peace between all religions" and "to denounce all forms of hatred and violence."

But critics accused Herzog of embracing the most radical elements of Israeli society. Herzog is a former leader of Israel's Labor party, which supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And his current position is meant to be apolitical and to serve as a moral compass for the nation.

Several dozen Israeli protesters gathered about a half-mile away from the cave, screaming "shame" as Israeli police held some of them back. Journalists and protesters were not allowed near the holy site.

"Herzog doesn't have any shame," said Nurit Budinsky, an Israeli activist. "He came to celebrate with these Jews who took over the city and celebrate with them a holiday of freedom. Here in Hebron there is no freedom, there are people who live in unbearable occupation."

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