The World Heritage Committee is set to debate inscribing the Old City of Hebron – including its Tomb of the Patriarchs – to the “State of Palestine” when it meets from July 2 to 12 in Krakow, Poland.
“This is a new front in the war over the holy places that the Palestinians are trying to ignite as part of their propaganda campaign against Israel and the history of the Jewish people,” Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama HaCohen told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The World Heritage Committee operates under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization.
For the last three years Israel has waged a stiff battle at UNESCO to prevent the Palestinians from linguistically reclassifying Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, solely as the Muslim religious site known as al-Haram al-Sharif.
“This is a clear continuation of the attacks and hallucinatory outrageous votes in UNESCO regarding Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall,” Shama HaCohen said, drawing a clear link between the two battles for Israel’s Jewish heritage.
UNESCO recognized Palestine as a state in 2011, a move that allowed the Palestinian Authority to inscribe two sites on the World Heritage List: Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the pilgrimage route in 2012; and the ancient terraces of Battir in 2014.
It fast-tracked both inscriptions by claiming the sites were endangered. It is now making the same argument with regard to Hebron’s Old City. This includes the Tomb’s Herodian structure that houses both Jewish places of worship and the Ibrahimi Mosque.
If the 21-member committee approves the PA’s request, it would mark the first time that a Jewish holy site under Israeli control was registered to the “State of Palestine.”
The World Heritage Committee on Thursday publicized the list of 35 sites that it plans to consider inscribing, including Hebron. But PA documents to explain the rationale for the inscription as well as a technical evaluation by a professional subgroup of the World Heritage Committee has yet to be posted on UNESCO’s website.
Israel has already been working for the last month to sway the committee members to reject the request based on five arguments, Shama HaCohen said.
The Tomb and the city of Hebron is the second holiest site in Judaism, after the Temple Mount and its Western Wall, he noted. The Bible clearly records its purchase by Abraham.
Inscribing the site to the Palestinians would also be problematic diplomatically, because the area is under Israeli control based on the 1997 Hebron protocol signed by the PA and Israel, Shama HaCohen added.
The Palestinians are fast-tracking inscriptions at the expense of other countries who sometimes work for close to a decade to fulfill all the necessary inscription requirements, the ambassador said.
“This is a process that normally takes years.” In this case, he said, there was no danger to the site.
Israel has worked together with the religious authorities in Hebron with regard to upkeep and repairs to the site and to ensure access for Muslim worshipers to the Ibrahimi Mosque, he said.
Lastly, he asserted, registration of sites jointly used by Israelis and Palestinians should wait until such time as there is a final status agreement that ends the conflict.
This would allow both Israel and the Palestinians to jointly ask for the site’s inscription, Shama-HaCohen said, adding that to register the site to one party prior to such an agreement will only end up deepening the conflict.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wrote a letter to UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova explaining that it was important for UNESCO to “stand up for the truth.”
Conference chairman Stephen M. Greenberg and chairman and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who penned the letter, told Bokova that “Palestinian officials, including the leader of the Wakf of Hebron and the Wakf of the Cave, have praised the cooperation of Israeli authorities responsible for the security of these holy sites in Hebron and public safety arrangements for worshipers at the Cave.
“The Palestinian religious leaders have publicly acknowledged Israeli respect for freedom of worship for all and expressed appreciation for the sensitivity shown by the Israeli authorities in responding to Palestinian special requests,” they added.
The 21 committee members are: Angola, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Republic of Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.