Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

UNESCO Declares Hebron a World Heritage Site, Angers Israel

Palestine- Ibrahimi Mosque
Palestinian men perform Friday prayers outside the Ibrahimi Mosque or the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron. Photo AFP

Palestinians of all walks of life have visited Hebron at one time or another, or are familiar with one of the most important cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Locals and tourists alike visit the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and his family are buried. Visitors are told how Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions, obeyed God’s command, even when it came to sacrificing his own son.

On 7 July 2017, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, voted 12 to three in a secret ballot to give World Heritage to the old city of Hebron. Israel opposed the vote, which refers to the city as Islamic, saying that it denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.

A spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish settlers, who live in a fortified enclave near the mosque, called the decision “ridiculous”, “anti-Semitic” and “typical of UNESCO’s bunch of ignoramuses who are consumed by hate”.

Hebronites are barred from many areas of the old city, including Shuhada Street. Once a thriving market and thoroughfare, the street has been closed to Palestinians since a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre. Abraham’s burial site itself is heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers.

The resolution is seen as a victory for Palestinian diplomacy, but was cited by Israel as a fresh example of what it sees as the UN’s anti-Israel bias. Even before the vote, which was fast-tracked on the basis that the site is under threat, Israeli officials blocked an UNESCO delegation from visiting Hebron.

In a Facebook post, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution ‘delusional’, adding, ‘This time they decided that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning that it is not Jewish.’ The Los Angeles-based Jewish Telegraph corrected him, noting that the resolution ‘did not mention the [Tomb of the Patriarchs], and does not designate the site as Palestinian’.

Chris Doyle, the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAA-BU) also took issue with Netanyahu’s comments, explaining the difference between religious links and sovereignty. “That Hebron is Palestinian does not sever the Jewish link any more than Nazareth being in Israel means the Christian link is cut. Sites important to Jews and Judaism exist worldwide, such as al-Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia, but this does not mean Israel has a sovereign claim to them. Hebron has Jewish links and history; nobody at UNESCO is saying otherwise.”

In a speech following the vote, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO summed up the sentiment to the vote in his country. Carmel Shama-Hacohen focused not only on the resolution but also attacked the World Heritage Committee, saying it had not done enough to keep the voting secret.

According to the Times of Israel, the ambassador was interrupted several times by his ringing phone. Wrapping up his angry speech, he explained that his plumber was trying to reach him be-cause 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”.

Hebron’s governor, Kamel Hamed, was more measured in his response. “With its cultural and human heritage, this decision shows that Hebron is important to the entire world and not just Palestinians,” he said.

His words echoed the position taken by UNESCO, which states on its website that ‘World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located’.

Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, welcomed the resolution, telling the Saudi-owned daily Arab News that she was happy with the “important decision that is part of the incremental effort aimed at curbing Israeli attempts of theft and destruction of our sites, and the collective character of Palestine”. She added that Israel had been trying to “impose a monolithic reality on historical Palestine”.

Rula Maayah, Palestinian minister of tourism, told the same newspaper that the vote was passed despite extreme pressure on member states. “The fact that it was passed overwhelmingly, despite being held in secret, shows how deep the international will is on this issue.” She added that the decision would improve Palestinians’ morale. “We feel that we are not alone now and that there is an international body that is also concerned about the preservation of this historical site.”

Khaled Qawasmi, an elected member of the Hebron City Council, said he hoped that the Hebron Municipality and the committee to rebuild Hebron would “take good care of this heritage and act in a unified way to ensure its preservation for future generations”.

Nayef Hashlamoun, president of al-Watan Center, a non-profit organization serving individuals and groups dedicated to nonviolent conflict resolution, described the decision as “a signal” of global support for the Palestinian people. “This is a just and human resolution which stresses the Arab identity of Hebron with its heritage, culture, building and history. Putting Hebron on the world heritage endangered list supports peace and opposes violence and terror.”

Hebron has been and will continue to be a city that includes within its boundaries sites that are sacred to all religions. The UNESCO vote simply declares that this important site is in danger and must be protected, regardless of the local politics.

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