Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech outside a contested holy site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. He said that Hebron would not become "Judenrein" — a term used by Nazi Germany for "free of Jews."
"We are not strangers in Hebron, we will remain here forever," he said, speaking at a podium flanked by bullet-proof shielding. The prime minister's office said Netanyahu's security detail determined the level of protection for his visit to the West Bank city.
Under interim peace accords of the 1990s, Hebron is divided between Israeli and Palestinian zones of control. Hundreds of ultranationalist Israeli settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves amid tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Relations between the sides are poor. In 1994, a Jewish ultranationalist militant carried out a mass shooting in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 worshippers and wounding scores of others before he was killed. The city remains a frequent flashpoint of violence.
In his first visit to the city since 1998, Netanyahu attended a memorial ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of a massacre of Hebron's Jewish community in which 67 people were killed. The Palestinian Authority voiced its outcry over Netanyahu's visit and Palestinian protesters burned pictures of the Israeli leader in Hebron's Old City.
"Netanyahu's visit today to Hebron means provocation for the Palestinian people," said Palestinian anti-settlement activist Issa Amro. "We are used by Netanyahu as an election material for his party, for himself, to win the election."
Netanyahu's visit comes ahead of Israel's re-do election on Sept. 17, after the long-serving prime minister failed to form a governing coalition following April's vote. The Israeli settlements in Hebron voted heavily in favor of religious nationalist parties in the previous election. In a tight race, Netanyahu has been courting voters who typically support his hard-line allies in hopes of ensuring his Likud is the largest party in parliament.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. Most of the international community considers Israel's West Bank settlements illegal according to international law and an impediment to peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians seek the West Bank as part of a future state.
Shortly after his visit, Netanyahu's office announced that the prime minister would leave Thursday for a snap trip to London to meet with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Netanyahu's office said he would discuss "the situation in the region and the way to repel terrorism and Iranian aggression" with his British counterpart.