Ahead of UNESCO vote on Hebron, Israel bars fact-finding mission from city
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Ahead of UNESCO vote on Hebron, Israel bars fact-finding mission from city

Since move to add Tomb of Patriarchs to list of endangered sites seems like a foregone conclusion, Jerusalem says expert commission a waste of time

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Jewish settler sits outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
A Jewish settler sits outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Israel on Friday denied a fact-finding mission entry to the West Bank city of Hebron ahead of a Palestinian effort to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs inscribed on a UN list of threatened sites.

A group of independent scholars from the International Council on Monuments and Sites had been trying to gain access to the disputed holy site since the Palestinian Authority announced in April its plan to have it added to UNESCO’s list of endangered world heritage sites.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to grant them the required permits.

“On a strategic and principled level, the State of Israel will not take part in and will not legitimize any Palestinian political move under the guise of culture and heritage,” said Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.

The UN cultural agency’s World Heritage Committee is expected to vote on the matter on July 2, during its 41st session in Krakow, Poland. Given the Arab nations’ automatic majority in international forums, the Palestinian proposal is likely to be accepted. The Tomb of the Patriarchs would become the third cultural site on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” that is registered as located in the “State of Palestine.” The other two are the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem and the “cultural landscape of Southern Jerusalem,” around Battir.

Before those sites were added to the list, fact-finding missions were dispatched and advised against adding them, Carmel-Hacohen said. But that did not stop the members states of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to vote “yes” anyway, he added.

“Thus, it is a waste of everybody’s time and money to send professionals to make recommendations. Because as opposed to the requests of other countries, where expert opinions do have a significant impact, the Palestinians have created from themselves a VIP track to enlist a site that is among the most important in Judaism through a campaign based on lies against the Jews and their state,” he said.

Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen (L), draped in an Israeli flag, at the UN cultural agency's Paris headquarters on May 2, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen (L), draped in an Israeli flag, at the UN cultural agency’s Paris headquarters on May 2, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

The Palestinians have never lost a vote at UNESCO, the Israel envoy added, “but there’s always a first time and we’re getting closer to it.”

Israeli diplomats argue that despite a long list of grievances the Palestinians are circulating, listing alleged Israeli “violations” in Hebron’s Old City, Israeli officials and local Muslim religious leaders get along fine.

“The inscription of the Old City of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site in Danger will stir resentment and fierce reaction in Israel and throughout the Jewish world,” Shama-Hacohen wrote earlier this month in a letter to the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, Mechtild Rossler.

Several Jewish groups have already protested against the expected vote.

“This is but the latest cynical move by the Palestinians to erase Jewish history by rebranding Judaism’s holiest sites, including the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Muslim,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement last week.

In a letter to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said that the Palestinian claims about Hebron are “replete with false information and baseless charges,” while urging her to prevent the vote from taking place.

“This is the latest in a series of unfounded charges and accusations meant to denigrate and distort Israel’s stewardship of holy sites,” the group said in a statement.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli border policeman at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, September 13, 2015. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli border policeman at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, September 13, 2015. (Flash90)

Currently 1,052 sites are inscribed on the World Heritage List, including nine in Israel. Adding a site usually takes several years, but the Palestinians seek to fast-track their applications to the body by claiming the site is in danger.

The 21 member states currently sitting on the World Heritage Committee are likely to vote against Israel. None of the 10 states that in May voted against a Palestinian resolution at UNESCO’s Executive Committee on Jerusalem are members of the committee.

Like it does every year, the World Heritage Committee is again expected to pass a resolution regarding Jerusalem’s Old City, which in the past has ignored the Jewish people’s ties to the city. In 2016, 10 countries voted in favor of the anti-Israel resolution, eight abstained and two voted against.

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