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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said Thursday its plan to rehabilitate Jewish shrines in the occupied West Bank, which has drawn Palestinian and Western criticism, will not affect Muslim worshippers or change the status quo.
Israel's decision this week to include two biblical burial sites in a plan to restore 150 Jewish and Zionist heritage sites sparked Palestinian protests. Both the United States and United Nations have expressed concern the move could undermine efforts to revive long-stalled peace talks.
"It seems as though there is some sort of misunderstanding, because there is no intention and no plan to change the status quo. Not in the religious sites or in arrangements for worship," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"There is international interest in protecting heritage sites, preserving them, but our intention is not to change them," he told Channel 9 television when asked about criticism coming from abroad. "I have no doubt the leading governments in the world will understand this quickly."
Israel intends to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Muslims in the flashpoint city of Hebron, and Rachel's Tomb, revered as the burial place of the Jewish matriarch, near the city of Bethlehem, in the restoration plan.
Both shrines are on territory Israel captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians want for a future state.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, "We have raised our concerns about the designation of West Bank sites as Israeli 'national heritage sites' to senior Israeli officials."
"We have asked both parties to refrain from taking provocative and unilateral actions, whether intended or not, that undermine trust and efforts to resume negotiations," Toner said.
Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, had said he was concerned by Israel's announcement and called on the Jewish state not to take steps that would "undermine trust or prejudice negotiations."
Netanyahu said similar improvements were recently made in coordination with Muslim authorities to Islamic prayer sites.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch