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Leading Israeli settler figure Moshe Levinger dies at age 80

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) — Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leading figure in Israel’s settler movement, was laid to rest Sunday in the West Bank city of Hebron, where he helped establish a controversial Jewish community after Israel captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.

Thousands attended his funeral outside Hebron’s holiest site, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. Relatives said Levinger died Saturday after an illness.

Levinger led the first settlers to Hebron, where Jews lived for centuries until dozens were massacred in Arab riots in 1929. Tensions still run high in Hebron, where about 800 settlers now live in heavily guarded areas amid 180,000 Palestinians.

The rabbi left Jerusalem on Passover eve in 1968 along with several dozen followers and checked into the Park Hotel posing as Swiss tourists. The next day, Levinger declared their true identity and announced their intention to re-establish Hebron’s Jewish community.

Levinger was charged with assault on several occasions. In 1990, he served 3 months of a five-month term for killing an Arab shopkeeper after he was attacked by a crowd of Palestinians throwing rocks.

Levinger was seen as a pioneering leader of the movement to build settlements in areas that Israel captured in 1967, which have deep religious and historical significance for many devout Jews.

“Rabbi Levinger’s name will be forever linked with the movement for renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron and other areas of the country where our patriarchs walked thousands of years ago,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote the family in a condolence letter.

Today more than 350,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and 200,000 more in east Jerusalem — alongside more than 2 million Palestinians who demand the areas along with the Gaza Strip for their future state.

The international community views the settlements as illegitimate, and the Palestinians have long considered them among the greatest obstacles to peace. U.S.-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last year largely over the settlement issue.

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