Palestinian history is made up of different layers and it is wrong and unfair to dig up one layer and ignore the others. This view was voiced by Dr. Albert Algazarian from Bir Zeit University, who wanted to prove the futility of arguing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in historical terms. I would argue that it is equally futile –and in fact dangerous – to turn it into a religious conflict.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have strong historical claims and religious roots in this holy land. Each side argues hard to prove he is the only one who enjoys the right to this place. In Arabic we call this a Byzantine argument: a nonsense conversation that will never end.

Last year the Israeli government added the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) to its list of Israeli heritage sites. Muslim Palestinians reacted furiously and called for Palestinian school children from schools throughout the West Bank to start a pilgrimage to the mosque. In fact, it seems a similar call was made to Jewish school children by Israeli figures. This past year I have seen hundreds of school visits, Israeli and Palestinian, to Hebron. I remember one particular day, when I saw a very visual example of the clash between these two narratives. I couldn't help but laugh to see a group of Jewish children led by their history teacher meet a group of Muslim children, led by their history teacher – both groups of innocent children crowded into the same place at the same time, with each teacher trying to prove that the place was theirs and theirs alone.

Last week Israel's Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs called on Jews to come to Hebron for the "Life of Sarah" Saturday, in reaction to the recognition of Palestine in UNESCO. So it is expected that thousands of religious Israeli Jews will visit Hebron this weekend.

From a Palestinian perspective, this event is not only a provocation. It is playing with fire, an attempt to push the conflict onto religious grounds. It could also be followed by a religious reaction on the Palestinian side – a continuation of the Byzantine game. It is even sadder to me that the call for Jews to come to Hebron this Saturday was official. How else to interpret the fact that it was made by a cabinet minister?

FOR PALESTINIAN residents of H2 (the part of Hebron still under full Israeli control), festive weekends like the coming one, when thousands of Jews are expected to visit settlements in the city center, are very different from what the Jewish visitors will experience. Even during 'normal' times, life in H2 is extremely difficult for Palestinians. The severe restrictions on movement enforced by Israeli security forces for some 10 years have paralyzed Hebron's old city center. Hundreds of days of curfew imposed by the Israeli army, and military orders closing stores and prohibiting Palestinian movement in key areas, coupled with the lack of law enforcement on settler violence, have turned a once thriving area into a ghost town, emptied of its inhabitants.

Special weekends like the "Life of Sarah" Saturday mean even more intense oppression. Palestinians are subjected to a de-facto closure: intrusive military and police checks are more frequent and residents report that the harassment that so often accompanies them is more hostile. The level of settler violence, an ongoing problem for Palestinians in H2, is higher.

In fact, my experience shows that the vast majority of incidents occur on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. Walking around, even along streets that the authorities permit Palestinians to walk in, can mean facing large numbers of settlers; many Palestinian families are forced to spend the weekend indoors to avoid the possible ramifications. No doubt, the policy of allocating Jews and Muslims several days a year to use the entire Ibrahimi complex separately is not in itself problematic. However, it does not absolve Israel's security forces of their obligation to protect Palestinians from violence or harassment by large numbers of settlers who attend the Jewish ceremonies, some of them all too keen to enjoy the impunity that their short term presence affords.

SO FAR, the official Palestinian position has been responsible. In his response to the event, Dr. Mahmoud Al-Habbash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs, said that the Israeli government is "trying to push us into a religious conflict, but we will not be deceived. We know and everyone in the world knows that the conflict is political and the occupation is the core of the problem.”

Most secular Palestinians agree with the minster, as they have never given up hope that their political struggle will come to an end. When we are dealing with political conflicts, there is always a possible compromise and thus a possible solution. A solution that accords with human rights and desires for coexistence, and that respects everyone's right to worship freely, not only in Hebron but everywhere.

Hebron is perhaps the best example of the tragedies that result from the manipulation and exploitation of religious sentiments. For both Palestinians and Israelis, these tragedies are extremely vivid memories: the Palestinians of Hebron and beyond cannot forget Baruch Goldstein's massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. Jews will never forget the massacre in Hebron in 1929. Both of these atrocities took place in the climate of religious provocation.

This should serve as a lesson to the religious dogmatism of Hamas on the one hand, and the extremists groups and settlers in Israel on the other: when we use religion to divide us, our conflict will be bloody and intractable. When we focus on basic rights – the right to believe and worship as we choose, but also the full range of civil, political, economic and social rights – we can build a future based on dignity for us all.

The writer is the Hebron Fieldworker for B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

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