HEBRON, West Bank — The UNESCO resolution approved last week did more than shortchange Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem. The text also has a section on the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which it calls a “Palestine site.”
While the resolution acknowledges that the building — which it refers to as “Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs” — is of “religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” it declares it to be “an integral part of Palestine.”
On Wednesday, one day after UNESCO’s executive board ratified the controversial resolution, 15 Christian parliamentarians from Europe, Africa and Latin America visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs and other parts of Jewish Hebron in a striking affirmation of support for the Jewish claim to the Holy Land.
The lawmakers, part of a network of 35 pro-Israel parliamentary caucuses counting over 1,000 members, were treated to a guided tour through Jewish Hebron and were hosted by the community’s spokespeople and other pro-settlement leaders.
The foreign dignitaries, who hailed from countries including Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and Uruguay, seemed empathetic. “This land belongs to the Jews, and especially this place,” said Reverend Malani Mtanga, an MP from Malawi. “We respect this land as a place that belongs to Abraham. It was bought by and belongs to Abraham and is to be respected as such and protected as such.”
UNESCO’s resolution is not only unfair to the Jews but to the whole world, since it also denies Christianity’s roots in the Holy Land, Mtanga told reporters on the steps leading to the site, revered by Jews as the final resting place of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, and by Muslims because of Abraham’s significance as a Quranic prophet. “UNESCO has no power to erase the history of this land.”
The foreign MPs were visiting on the sidelines of the annual Israel Allies Foundation conference, which is co-sponsored by the World Jewish Congress and has for years brought Christian and Jewish pro-Israeli lawmakers from various countries to visit the Holy Land during Sukkot, the festival during which, according to Jewish tradition, the nations of the world ascend to Jerusalem. But Wednesday’s trip was the first time a group of foreign parliamentarians visited the Jewish community of Hebron, organizers said.
Indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organization tried to block the visit, even lobbying the MPs’ host governments. South African lawmaker Kenneth Meshoe said he felt the Palestinians’ pressure, but insisted he had nothing but bitter scorn for it.
In Hebron, South Africa MP said Palestinian pressure not to visit reminded him of apartheid when they restricted his freedom of movement pic.twitter.com/uLTG1ye1tc
— Raphael Ahren (@RaphaelAhren) October 19, 2016
“The Palestinian Authority reminded me of the apartheid days when I was not allowed to travel the way I wanted to,” he said.
Like all participants, Meshoe, the president of the African Christian Democratic Party — which currently has three out of 400 seats in the country’s National Assembly — expressed outrage at UNESCO’s Jerusalem resolution and vowed to tell his government that they were hypocritical in supporting it.
Why, then, did many Christian countries supported the text despite its distortion of history?
“It is difficult to explain,” Meshoe said, adding that “one of the reasons could be cowardice. We have many political leaders who are cowards, who don’t have a backbone, who cannot stand for their convictions. Many political leaders are like dead fish that just flow with the stream. And I think it is high time now that Africa produces leaders who are bold, who will stand for their convictions and not blow with the wind.”
Meshoe has been to Israel dozens of times, but never to Hebron. “It strengthens my faith,” he said of the visit, which started with a tour of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The group’s local guide was Noam Arnon, a veteran advocate for Hebron’s Jewish community who is currently writing a doctorate on “the history and the mystery” of the holy site.
As the foreign dignitaries pushed their way through masses of Jewish tourists, Arnon spoke of the 2,000-year history of the building and hailed the “miracle” of the Jews’ return to Hebron after the last ones fled Arab violence in the 1936-9 Arab revolt. “This building was erected 700 years before Islam was born,” he said.
“This is not Disneyland. This is the foundation of humanity,” exclaimed Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community. “Take a moment to be wowed by it.”
The lawmakers took selfies with the patriarchs’ cenotaphs (placeholders that look like graves but indicate the tombs’ underground location) and some joined a group of Orthodox men exuberantly dancing in a circle to mark the intermediary days of Sukkot.
Speaker after speaker described Hebron as a world wonder — Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi called it “the most complex and intense place in the world” — and stressed that it is possible to walk the city’s streets without fear of attack.
After the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the group passed by a street with shuttered Palestinian storefronts. Fleisher, the Jewish community’s international spokesperson, acknowledged that it was “lamentable” that Israeli forces had to close these shops but cited a “sense of danger” due to a “lot of terrorism” that emerged from these places.
“They [the shop owners] weren’t evicted; many of them still live here,” he said. “They were all offered compensation; some took it, some didn’t. But it’s not a ghost city that we ethnically cleansed, as the media likes to portray it.”
On the way to the next stop — the Tel Rumeida lookout — the lawmakers were shown a staircase built some 4,500 years ago, in the early Bronze Age. When Abraham walked here with his son, said Fleisher, he probably told Isaac, already back then, that this was one of humanity’s most ancient structures.
Right across from the staircase lives far-right activist Baruch Marzel, who invited the foreign dignitaries in for refreshments; nobody took him up on the offer.
“Not everyone is anti-Semitic,” Marzel told Israeli reporters as the lawmakers passed by his house. “A big part of Europe really is anti-Semitic. Those who are not supporting Israel, automatically.”
At the Tel Rumeida lookout point, the lawmakers were shown “Arab Hebron,” which Fleisher described as a vibrant city that has little in common with its international image as a city of divisiveness and conflict. Hebron’s reputation as a city of “Israeli apartheid” is a “myth,” Fleisher said, adding that Hamas is the “predominant political and attitudinal factor here.”
(Some 180,000 Palestinians and 10,000 Jews live in the city — 1,000 in Hebron itself and 9,000 in adjacent Kiryat Arba.)
Later, during lunch, Efrat mayor Revivi and other speakers showered the visiting MPs with subtle and not-so-subtle messages in support of a one-state solution. Revivi, who is also a senior official in the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council, spoke of the excellent relationship he has with the Palestinians living in the area, positing that “high fences don’t make good neighbors,” and that all the Palestinians want is better cooperation with Israeli authorities.
Josh Reinstein, from the Israel Allies Foundation, said the notion that a Palestinian state without Jews could lead to peace was a “myth.”
The lawmakers listened and nodded politely, but asked for their views later, several said they support the creation of a Palestinian state.
“I’m in favor of a two-state solution as long as the Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to exist in safe and secure borders,” Meshoe, the MP from South Africa, said.
Did he realize that throughout the day he had been listening to speakers who firmly oppose Palestinian statehood? “I haven’t engaged many of them,” he replied.