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HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel's plan to include the biblical Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank in a project for rehabilitating Jewish and Zionist heritage sites touched off violent Palestinian protests on Monday.
Palestinian security forces deployed to break up hundreds of demonstrators throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in the divided flashpoint city of Hebron, where the shrine is located. The Israeli troops fired tear gas at the protesters.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday he intended to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs and several other Jewish religious shrines in territory Israel captured in a 1967 war in a $107 million plan to restore Jewish heritage sites.
"A person must know his homeland and its cultural and historical vistas. That is what we are going to instill in this generation and in the next generations ... for the glory of the Jewish people," he said.
Khaled Esseleh, the mayor of Hebron, said: "I'm hoping there won't be more clashes but this is a very sensitive religious issue, and Netanyahu just lit the fire."
Palestinians are calling the move an attempt to seize land and holy sites on Israeli-occupied land where they hope to build a future state.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the "unilateral decision to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel shows there is no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on consolidating Palestinian lands."
While major powers worked to restart negotiations, "Netanyahu is actively working to sabotage the two-state solution," Erekat said in a statement.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which Muslims call al-Ibrahimi mosque, is sacred to Jews and Muslims as the traditional burial place of biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.
Hebron and the shrine itself have long been flashpoints of violence in the West Bank, territory Israel's government calls by its biblical names Judea and Samaria.
Arabs massacred 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929. Sixty-five years later, a Jewish settler shot and killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque before he was beaten to death at the scene.
Some 400 Jewish settlers, claiming a divine right to Hebron, now live in heavily guarded enclaves in the city, among some 150,000 Palestinians.
In a statement, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was concerned by Israel's announcement regarding the Hebron holy site and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, another shrine Netanyahu wants to include in the heritage plan.
"I call on Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations, the resumption of which should be the highest shared priority of all who seek peace," Serry said.
Writing by Erika Solomon, Editing by Michael Roddy