For the first time in their history on Thursday, Palestinians have the right to act as a state before the World Heritage Committee and ask the UN body to register Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity under the name of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority has an inventory list of 20 historical, religious, cultural and natural sites over the pre-1967 line that it wants the UN to register.

These range from the old town of Nablus to Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. No sites in Jerusalem are on the PA’s list at present.

As an initial step, the PA has asked the committee to consider the Church of the Nativity as a historical site when it convenes in St. Petersburg at the end of June.

Palestine is not an accepted member state of the UN. But it is possible for the PA to register sites under the name of Palestine after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization accepted it as the 195th member of its organization on October 31. This move opened the door for Palestine’s admission to all UNESCO bodies.

Only on Thursday, however, will its signature to the UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage be ratified. Palestine will also be a member of three other conventions: Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage; Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage; and the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

The World Heritage Committee had already received the PA’s registration application for the Church of the Nativity, but could only formally accept it on Thursday.

According to Omar Awadallah, who heads the UN department in the PA Foreign Ministry, preparation to register Palestinian sites before the World Heritage Committee began over four years ago.

“We were waiting for all final status issues with Israel to be resolved,” he said.

In light of the deadlocked negotiations, the PA is now using that material to move forward at UNESCO.

Since the deadline to be placed on the World Heritage Committee’s June agenda has passed, the PA has asked for an emergency exception.

The committee’s International Council on Monuments and Sites has not yet made a ruling on that request.

Israel has opposed all Palestinian moves to unilaterally pursue statehood at the UN, including the UNESCO membership and moves to register sites in Palestine.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that recognition of Palestinian statehood should come only after the PA has negotiated a final-status agreement with Israel. Recognition of Palestine prior to such an agreement destroys the chance of achieving a twostate solution where both peoples can live together in peace, he said. He urged the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table instead of unilaterally pursuing statehood at the UN.

Awadallah, however, said “We already believe that we are a state. We just want to be recognized as a member state at the UN.”

“It is a legal and historical right for all nations, including the Palestinians, to be a part of these conventions,” he said. “This is a normal thing, because nations want to protect their heritage and culture.”

But Palmor said that if it was about national protection, the PA would have chosen to register a Muslim or environmental site. Instead, it chose a Christian site, he said.

“Running amok in their attempt to dispossess Jews of their history as displayed in the infamous Jerusalem conference recently held in Doha, the Palestinians are now causing wide collateral damage by trying to lay claim to Christianity and its holy sites as their very own,” he said.

Palmor added that the PA could have tried to register a non-religious site or even a Muslim one.

“But they chose a Christian site at the same time that they are legislating laws inspired by Shari’a which barely tolerate Christians let alone Jews.”

Awadallah countered that Christian history was an important part of Palestine.

“Jesus is the Palestinian prince of hope and peace and Bethlehem is his birthplace,” he said.

He added that eventually the Palestinians want to register Bethlehem’s entire old city, it simply started with the church.

“I think that Christians all over the world want that church to be a World Heritage site.”

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