Netanyahu said that Israel's existence depended not only on its defence force and its economic resilience, but also on its "ability to justify our connection to the land".

Palestinian condemnation

The Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said in a statement that the decision was an attempt by Netanyahu's government to "wreck international efforts aimed at returning to talks".

Negotiations between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian government have been stalled for more than a year since Abbas pulled out over the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

"This decision puts Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan declaration of two states for two peoples in an absurd light"

Chaim Oron,
chairman of the Meretz party

Netanyahu has said he is prepared to resume negotiations without preconditions, but the Palestinian Authority has refused until Israel halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Left-wing Israeli party Meretz criticised the decision by saying that "this is another attempt to blur the borders between the State of Israel and the occupied territories."

"This decision puts Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan declaration of two states for two peoples in an absurd light," Chaim Oron, the Meretz chairman, said.

But Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said the list was not meant to set borders.

"The purpose of the list ... is to single out sites that are of great importance to the Jewish people," he said.

The Palestinians want an independent state based on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, under which it would control security, borders and other matters.

Right-wing pressure

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had bowed to pressure from right-wing politicians and the settlers' lobby to include the two sites in the Palestinian- administered West Bank.

The Cave of the Patriarchs is revered by
Jews, Muslims and Christians [AFP]
Uri Orbach, a member of the right-wing religious party Habayit Hayehudi, said: "Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs form the base for all the other sites.

"It's a pity that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb need to lobby in order to get onto the list of heritage sites that require government support," he said.

The Cave of the Patriarchs, located in Hebron, is the second holiest site for Jews and said to be where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives.

It is also venerated by Christians and Muslims, who call it al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.

Rachel's Tomb is revered as the grave of the wife of Jacob, one of the patriachs buried in Hebron.

Israeli security is already tight around both sites.

According to media reports, the cost of preserving the 150 heritage sites would be in the region of $106 million.