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Israelis converge on West Bank holy sites in 'provocative' visits

March 23, 2016 10:11 A.M. (Updated: March 24, 2016 9:35 A.M.)
HEBRON (Ma'an) -- Hundreds of Israelis, including large numbers of settlers, converged on religious sites across the occupied West Bank on Wednesday morning ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim, in visits Palestinians condemned as "provocative."

In the southern West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli settlers as well as other right-wing Israelis held celebrations in the Old City's Ibrahimi Mosque.

Locals told Ma'an that during the celebrations, which began late Tuesday, the settlers "provocatively" used the mosque's loudspeakers "to sing racist songs that call for the expulsion of 'Arabs' from Hebron."

The settlers were under the heavy protection of Israeli forces, who closed off the premises, preventing Palestinians from entering the mosque, and restricted access to the surrounding area.

Some Israeli media sites reported that as many 7,000 Israelis celebrated at the holy site, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The site has long been a flashpoint, and was split into a synagogue and a mosque following a 1994 attack by an Israeli settler who opened fire on Muslim worshipers, killing 29 and injuring more than 100 Palestinians.

Separately on Wednesday, clashes broke out as hundreds of Israelis, including settlers, visited Joseph's Tomb near Balata refugee camp east of Nablus under military escort, Palestinian security sources said.

As many as 500 Israelis arrived in 10 buses at the holy site at dawn, the sources told Ma'an.

Large numbers of Israeli forces accompanied the Israelis to the site, and clashes quickly erupted, with local youths from Balata hurling stones at Israeli military jeeps, and soldiers firing tear gas canisters in return.

A number of protesters reportedly suffered excessive tear gas inhalation, although no other injuries were reported.

An Israeli army spokesperson had no immediate information on the reports.

Joseph's Tomb -- revered by Jews, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans -- is the site of regular visits by Israelis, who are escorted by Israeli military forces to the area, often leading to clashes with local Palestinians.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Joseph's Tomb was to remain under Israeli control, but the Palestinian Authority took over the site after the Israeli army withdrew during the Second Intifada.

As part of security cooperation with the PA, the Israeli army allows Jewish worshipers to make monthly pilgrimages to the site.

The Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates the Biblical account of the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, an ancient Persian vizier, begins Wednesday evening and ends late Thursday.

Israeli forces have put in place stringent restrictions on Palestinians' movement ahead of the holiday.
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