Israel reacted with swift anger and disdain to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decision on Friday to declare Hebron an endangered Palestinian world heritage site, with officials issuing a series of scathing statements condemning another “delusional” resolution by the UN body.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired off a tweet accompanied by a short video in which he slams the decision and vows to protect the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, revered as the biblical burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.
“Yet another delusional decision by UNESCO. This time they’ve decided that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning not a Jewish one and listed it an endangered site. Not a Jewish site?” asked an indignant Netanyahu.
“Who is buried there? Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, our patriarchs and matriarchs. The site is in danger? In fact, only in places in which Israel has a presence, like Hebron, there is freedom of religion for everyone. In the Middle East, they bomb mosques, churches and synagogues, in places Israel is not present,” he went on.
Netanyahu added that Israel would “continue to protect the Tomb of the Patriarchs, freedom of religion for everyone, and we will also continue to protect the truth.”
עוד החלטה הזויה של אונסק״ו. לא אתר יהודי?! מי קבור שם – האבות והאימהות שלנו! נמשיך לשמור על מערת המכפלה, על חופש דת לכולם, ועל האמת. pic.twitter.com/t9ZGZrWQHM
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) July 7, 2017
In a speech following the contentious vote Friday, Israel’s envoy summed up the feeling in Israel by telling the UN body that the repair of his bathroom was more important than this decision.
Carmel Shama-Hacohen focused not on the actual decision that had just been taken, but attacked the World Heritage Committee delegates who earlier this week stood for a minute of silence for Palestinians initiated by Cuba to counter-balance a similar mark of respect he had called for minutes earlier for the victims of the Holocaust.
During his speech, the Israeli ambassador was interrupted several times by his ringing cellphone. Wrapping up his angry speech, he said his plumber was looking for him because of an urgent problem with the toilet in his Paris apartment. His bathroom, Shama-Hacohen said, was “far more important than the resolution you just passed.”
Shama-Hacohen accused the session’s chairman of not conducting a truly secret ballot, as the chairman ordered the delegates to come up to the front of the hall and put a sealed envelope into a box in front of the other diplomats. The Israeli envoy claimed he was promised the vote would take place behind a curtain, hoping that would enable delegates from moderate Arab states to reject the Palestinian-led bid.
Votes to inscribe sites onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List are usually done by a show of hands among all the member states. But three countries — Poland, Croatia and Jamaica — requested a secret ballot. Several states objected, leading to a shouting match between delegates, and Israeli Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen storming to the desk of the session’s chairman to make Israel’s case. The kerfuffle ended after the chairman, a Polish diplomat, called in security.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is now 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.
Israel says the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there, and the outrage at the decision was evident in Jerusalem.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the “UNESCO seems intent on spreading anti-Jewish lies,” and called out the UN body for ignoring acts of extremism in the region that resulted in the destruction of heritage sites.
UNESCO seems intent on sprouting anti-Jewish lies, while it remains silent as the region's heritage is destroyed by brutal extremists.
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) July 7, 2017
“This attempt to sever the ties between Israel and Hebron is shameful and offensive, and eliminates UNESCO’s last remaining shred of credibility,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said following the vote. “To disassociate Israel from the burial grounds of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our nation is an ugly display of discrimination, and an act of aggression against the Jewish people.”
Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Public Security, said UNESCO’s decision was “inflammatory” and hypocritical.
“There is no end to the hypocrisy,” Erdan said in a statement. “The Palestinians continue their campaign of incitement and lies through UNESCO. While the Islamic State destroys historic heritage sites in Aleppo, Palmyra, Mosul and other places, UNESCO chooses to concentrate on Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which were not and will not be in danger as long as the State of Israel exists. History can not be rewritten and can not be erased.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also heads Israel’s national UNESCO Committee, spoke out against the decision as well.
“The Jewish connection to Hebron goes back thousands of years. Hebron, the birthplace of King David’s kingdom, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the first Jewish purchase in Israel and resting place of our forefathers — are our People’s oldest heritage sites.”
“UNESCO’s resolution must be rejected, and our efforts to strengthen the city of our fathers increased,” Bennett said . “Our presence in Hebron was continuous until 1929 when Arabs massacred dozens of Jews. That brutal murder failed to sever our ties to the city and Tomb of the Patriarchs, which has been a Jewish site since biblical times. No vote will change these simple truths.”
Opposition politicians also slammed the decision.
“UNESCO’s decision to recognize the Cave of Patriarchs as a Palestinian heritage site is a despicable falsification of history,” Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid said in a statement. “Does UNESCO not believe that the Bible is heritage? It’s a decision that at best stems from utter ignorance and at worst from hypocrisy and anti-Semitism.”
A representative of the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and formerly in the Gaza Strip), said the decision was “pure anti-Semitism.”
“UNESCO prefers to disseminate outlandish conspiracy theories that paint Israel in a bad light, than to do its mission and defend the truth.The revisionist history being churned out of UNESCO only strengthens our resolve in Judea and Samaria to keep building a better future for generations to come,” said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council which represents over 400,00 settlers in the West Bank, in a statement.
“Hebron is Judaism’s second holiest site, denying 4,000 years of Jewish history is pure anti-Semitism,” he added.
Earlier this week, the World Heritage Committee passed a resolution denying Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel condemned the text, although it was much softer than similar resolutions passed in previous years.
On Tuesday, the heritage committee backed the Jerusalem resolution 10 to three, with eight abstentions.