Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu bitterly attacked as “absurd” a UN statement that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem are an integral part of the “occupied” Palestinian territories.

“The attempt to disconnect the nation of Israel from its heritage is absurd,” he said in a statement his office issued on Friday, in response to an October 21 decision regarding both sites by the executive board of the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

US slams Israel's heritage sites list
'Rachel's Tomb was never Jewish'

“If the places where the Jewish nation’s forefathers and mothers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel – were buried 4,000 years ago is not part of the Jewish nation’s heritage, then what is a heritage site?” Netanyahu asked.

He said he “regretted that an organization which was created to promote the heritage of historical sites around the world, was trying for political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its heritage. This attempt won’t succeed. The nation of Israel, unlike our neighbors, will continue to preserve freedom of worship for all religions.”

This was not the first time that Israel has argued with the international community over its right to these two West Bank biblical sites. In February, Jerusalem’s decision to include both sites in the country’s new national heritage list was condemned.

Muslims also consider both sites holy. They call the Tomb of the Patriarchs the Haram al- Ibrahimi Mosque, and claim that Rachel’s Tomb was once the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, named after the third convert to Islam.

In its press statement UNESCO referred to both sites, first by their Muslim names and then by their Jewish ones.

It reaffirmed that the “two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.”

Meanwhile on Saturday, some 25,000 Jews flocked to Hebron to mark the annual Torah reading of Hayei Sarah, a section of Genesis that chronicles Abraham’s purchase of the cave.

Thousands of Jews traditionally arrive to Hebron for that reading in a show of support for continued Jewish presence in the city.

This year’s visitors included Likud MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Tzipi Hotovely and National Union MK Uri Ariel. Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, were also present.

The guests were also allowed access to the city’s old quarter, the kasbah, for the first time in 12 years. The Council of the Jewish Community in Hebron said it looked forward to a time when 25,000 Jews would live there permanently.

Ahead of the weekend, 14 ministers, five deputy ministers, 19 MKs from the opposition and coalition, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) all issued letters of support for the Jewish community of Hebron. Among those who sent letters were Vice Premier Silvan Shalom (Likud), Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu) and Kadima MKs Tzahi Hanegbi, Ronit Tirosh and Yoel Hasson.

On October 21, the UNESCO board dealt with other issues relating to Israel, including Jerusalem’s Old City, which it said was sacred to all three monotheistic religions. But at the same time it was concerned with ongoing repair and archeological work that Israel has done there.

It called on Israel not to take any measures that would affect the “authenticity and integrity” of the ascent to the Mughrabi Gate to the Temple Mount. It also said it was concerned by what it said was Israel’s ongoing excavations and archeological work on the Temple Mount, which was in contradiction to UNESCO decisions and UN Security Council resolutions.

UNESCO called on the UN director-general to station experts in east Jerusalem to examine and report on the architectural, educational, cultural and demographic situation there.

It took Israel to task for continuing to construct its security barrier in the West Bank and said that the structure kept “children and students from being an integral part of their social fabric and from exercising their full right to education.”

Finally it deplored continued Israeli restrictions on movement of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, and asked that the UN continue its humanitarian efforts there.