Anna Maria JAKUBEK –
Unesco on Friday declared the Old City of Hebron an endangered world heritage site, sparking outrage from Israel in a new spat with the Palestinians at the international body. The UN’s cultural arm voted 12 to three — with six abstentions — to give heritage status to Hebron’s Old City in the occupied West Bank, which is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers. “Just inscribed on @Unesco #WorldHeritage List & World Heritage in Danger List: Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town,” the organisation said on its official Twitter feed.
The vote drew a sharp denunciation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who described it as “another delusional decision by Unesco.”
“This time they ruled the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning not a Jewish site, and that it is in danger,” he said incredulously, speaking in Hebrew in a video posted online.
And foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon slammed the decision as “a moral blot” which denied Jewish history in the ancient city.
“This irrelevant organisation promotes FAKE HISTORY. Shame on @UNESCO,” he wrote on Twitter after the decision taken in a secret ballot by the World Heritage Committee meeting in Krakow.
Brought by the Palestinians, the resolution declared Hebron’s Old City to be an area of outstanding universal value.
The resolution was fast-tracked on the basis that the site was under threat, with the Palestinians accusing Israel of an “alarming” number of violations, including vandalism and damage to property.
The Palestinian foreign ministry hailed Friday’s decision a “success” for Palestinian diplomacy.
Israel has long accused the United Nations of inherent bias against it and there have been a number of disputes at the organisation where Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has sought to take the battle for statehood.
In May, Unesco passed a resolution condemning Israel’s role as the “occupying power” in annexed east Jerusalem in another decision slammed by Israel which sees the entire city as its unified capital.
Hebron claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with its origins dating back to the Chalcolithic period — more than 3,000 years BC.
At various times it has been conquered by Romans, Jews, Crusaders and Mamluks.
Hebron’s Old City is home to an ancient burial cave which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Known to Muslims as the Ibrahami Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the landmark is venerated in both religions as the gravesite of the biblical patriarch Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob.
It is one of the most important religious sites to Muslims and Jews alike.
Hebron is also a stark symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The few hundred Israelis live closed off in several small, interconnected settlements that most of the world consider as illegal, with Palestinians largely banned from entering and using nearby streets.
Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 war in a move considered illegal by the United Nations.
The Israelis living in Hebron are protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, with Palestinians saying the settlements makes their lives impossible.
The Unesco committee usually votes via a show of hands but this time, Croatia, Jamaica and Poland requested the secret ballot, prompting a heated discussion which required the chairman to call in security.
There was another moment of intrigue when Israel’s ambassador to Unesco, Carmel Shama Hacohen, took the floor after the vote but kept being interrupted by his cell phone.
“Mr Chairman, it’s my plumber in my apartment in Paris. There is a huge problem in my toilet,” he eventually said.
“And it’s much (more) important than the decision that you just adopted,” he said.
Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon also weighed in on the vote, describing it as “shameful & offensive”.
“This is an ugly display of discrimination & an act of aggression against the Jewish people.
No @UN agency can disassociate our people from the burial grounds of our patriarchs & matriarchs.”
By listing sites on its World Heritage in Danger list, Unesco seeks to mobilise the international community to protect them.
It also allows for the allocation of immediate World Heritage Fund assistance to the property.
Earlier this week, the committee added the historic centre of Vienna to its list of endangered sites but chose to keep Australia’s Great Barrier Reef off, despite concern over coral bleaching. — AFP
Know your Hebron
What is Hebron?
Hebron claims to be one of the world’s oldest cities, dating from the chalcolithic period or more than 3,000 years BC. Over the centuries, Romans, Jews, Crusaders, Mamluks and the British have conquered the city, which today lies in the southern part of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
The city — which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians — is the largest in the West Bank, with more than 200,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers.
What is the Old City row?
Israel seized the West Bank including Hebron in 1967 in a move never recognised by the international community.
In the years after, a small community of Jewish settlers moved into the area next to an important religious site, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers.
All such settlements are considered illegal by the United Nations, but Israel says there are thousands of years of Jewish history in the city.
Jews had been living in Hebron decades before 1967 but were forced out after violent attacks by Palestinians during the British Mandate.
What is the Ibrahimi Mosque?
At the centre of the dispute is the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Old Testament figures including Abraham are believed to be buried there.
In 1994, Israeli-American Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims praying at the site, killing 29, before being beaten to death by survivors. The building is now split into two, with Muslims praying at the mosque and Jews at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Palestinians say the heavy Israeli military presence, including a series of checkpoints, is degrading and point out that parts of the city are off limits to them.
What was the vote?
The Palestinian-led move asked Unesco’s heritage committee to recognise Hebron’s Old City as a protected heritage site, while also referring to the city as “Islamic”.
Israel rejected the idea, with foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon saying the Palestinians were “trying to rewrite Jewish history and the history of the region”.
The vote came only two months after Unesco passed a separate resolution on Jerusalem, which Israel said denied Jewish connection to the Western Wall — the holiest site Jews are allowed to pray at.
What is the impact of the resolution?
The effects on the ground are likely to be limited, with Israel still maintaining military control over the area.
Israel’s ambassador to Unesco Carmel Shama Hacohen laughed off the resolution on Friday, saying his plumbing at home was more important. But Alaa Shahin, from the Palestinian Hebron municipality, said vote it could help encourage tourism. He said Israel’s military had closed off much of the Old City’s souq and the vote would provide backing to attempts to prevent this.
“We’ll have a legal body at an international level that will help our efforts to stop any attempts to destroy it,” he said.