UNESCO World Heritage meet opens amid tensions over Hebron motion

Cultural body to vote on Palestinian request to add Tomb of Patriarchs to list of endangered sites

Illustrative: A general view of the West Bank city of Hebron with the Tomb of the Patriarchs at center, on January 18, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/ Flash90)
Illustrative: A general view of the West Bank city of Hebron with the Tomb of the Patriarchs at center, on January 18, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/ Flash90)

Officials opened the 41st annual UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s conference in Poland on Sunday, bringing together 21 member states, more than 170 observer nations and many non-governmental organizations.

The meeting will run through July 12 and debate contentious issues like a Palestinian motion to deny Israel sovereignty over Jerusalem and have the West Bank city of Hebron designated as a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”

Members discussed a lot of sites in danger but it was unclear when they were expected to vote. Given the Arab nations’ automatic majority in international forums, the Palestinian proposal is likely to be accepted.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Polish Culture Minister Piotr Glinski opened the session in a ceremony at the Renaissance Wawel Castle in Krakow, a historic city on the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Earlier in the day, they viewed Poland’s most precious painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” which the state bought last year from the aristocratic Czartoryski family. The government said the session is among Poland’s top cultural events this year.

UNESCO has come under fire by Israel, the US and other nations for a series of moves deemed anti-Israel, most recently in May when its executive board ratified a contentious resolution denying any legal or historical Israeli links to Jerusalem and calling Israel an “occupying power” in its capital.

That resolution also criticized the Israeli government for archaeological projects in the capital and in Hebron and lambasted its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On Friday, speaking at the UNESCO International Conference on the Empowerment of Women in Paris, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni criticized UNESCO for its repeated decisions against Israel and called on the organization to reject the vote on Hebron.

“I am an opposition leader in Israel, but I am not in opposition to the history of my people and not in opposition to the truth,” Livni said, indicated she had almost declined the invitation to participate over UNESCO’s recent actions. “These decisions will not harm my people’s connection to [Jerusalem and Hebron], but they will hurt UNESCO and the ability to promote common interests.”

“UNESCO must not be turned into a political arena,” Livni said during the UN body’s conference. “There are representatives from countries that have conflicts between them, but they must be left outside the building. Unfortunately, there are member states that exploit UNESCO for political purposes and to open conflicts.”

“At first I thought I would not come because they have taken terrible decisions, but then I thought, if I am getting a hearing here at UNESCO, I am going to say what I have to, not only on the issue of women, but also what I think about the decisions that are on their table about Hebron next week,” Livni said.

“They are going to hear what one woman from Israel thinks of these decisions. We can make a difference here.”

In May’s resolution, the UN agency wrote that Hebron (and Bethlehem) was an “integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” and that it “deplores the ongoing Israeli excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and of a Wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalil/Hebron which are illegal under international law and harmfully affect the authenticity and integrity of the site.”

The Tomb of the Patriarchs could 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.

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 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Following the May vote, Israel announced it would cut another $1 million from its payments to the UN, bringing the total cuts since December 2016 to $9 million.

In December, after the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, slamming Israeli settlement activity and calling settlements illegal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered $6 million cut from Israel’s payment to the UN. And in March, after the Human Rights Council passed five anti-Israel resolutions, Netanyahu vowed to cut an additional $2 million.

Last week, Israel denied a fact-finding mission entry to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs ahead of the UNESCO vote.

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, 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.

Raphael Aharen contributed to this report.

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