JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he hopes to include two hotly contested West Bank Jewish holy places in a plan to restore national heritage sites.


Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, two holy sites inside Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank, were not originally included in the 100 million dollar (73 million euro) plan.

But after right-wing ministers protested their absence from a list of some 150 historical sites ear-marked for restoration, Netanyahu appeared to back down, saying "I hope these two sites will be included."

"It is our obligation to give this heritage to our children," he told reporters at a cabinet meeting held in the northern Israeli town of Tel Hai, the site of a famous 1920 battle between Jews and Arabs.

The prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the final list of sites had not yet been decided, but would be based on "their importance to the history of the Jewish people."

"The prime minister was expressing his opinion that (the two sites) should be included," Regev told AFP.

The tomb of the Jewish matriarch Rachel is in an Israeli enclave in the West Bank town of Bethlehem surrounded by eight-metre high (24-foot) concrete walls.

A few hundred hardline settlers under heavy Israeli military protection have taken up residence near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and converted part of the Ibrahimi mosque above the site into a synagogue.

More than 160,000 Palestinians live in Hebron, from which the Israeli military partially withdrew in 1998.

The United States has been pressing Israel for months to halt all construction activity in the occupied territory in a bid to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians that were suspended more than a year ago.

Netanyahu in November agreed to a 10-month halt to new construction in the West Bank but the Palestinians rejected the move because it excluded public buildings, projects already under way, and annexed east Jerusalem.