PA minister: Palestinians to push world heritage agenda

Hamdan Taha says PA to seek World Heritage recognition for Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, other West Bank sites if accepted to UN agency.

October 10, 2011 12:11
3 minute read.

UNESCO logo 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of UNESCO)

RAMALLAH - The Palestinians will seek World Heritage status for Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity if the UN cultural agency admits them as a full member, and will then nominate other sites on Israeli-occupied land for the same standing, a Palestinian Authority minister said on Monday.

Hamdan Taha, a PA minister who deals with antiquities and culture, said UNESCO membership was the Palestinians' natural right. He described as "regrettable" the objections of some governments including the United States.

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Aside from Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has listed ancient pilgrimage routes and the West Bank towns of Nablus and Hebron among 20 cultural and natural heritage sites which Taha said could also be nominated as World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO's board decided last week to let member states vote on a Palestinian application for full membership, seen as part of a Palestinian drive opposed by Israel and the United States for recognition as a state in the UN system.

"UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?" Taha said. "I see it as crowning long efforts over the past 20 years."

He said that after gaining full UNESCO membership, the Palestinians will revive their bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem, which was rejected this year because the Palestinians were not a full UNESCO member.

"This is a simple example of how Palestine has not been able to preserve its cultural heritage through the tools granted to every state in the world," Taha said.

"We will call on the World Heritage Committee to activate this application," said Taha. "We expect that after Bethlehem, other sites will follow."

The vote on Palestinian membership is expected at UNESCO's General Conference, which runs from October 25 to November 10. The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974.

The United States opposes the move, seeing it as part of a unilateral Palestinian bid to bypass the two-decade-old peace process. Washington says negotiations with Israel are the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their goal of statehood in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

UNESCO is the first UN agency to which the Palestinians have applied for full membership since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted their request to become a member state of the United Nations on Sept. 23, also in the face of stiff US opposition.

Israel's ambassador to UNESCO has condemned the move, saying politicizing UNESCO will undermine its ability to carry out its mandate.

But Taha described the Palestinians' motives as "purely cultural."

"This will allow Palestine to actively participate in protecting cultural heritage in the Palestinian territories," he said.

The territories where the Palestinians aim to found their state are home to a plethora of ancient sites, many of biblical significance, as well as sites of natural importance such as the Dead Sea.

"We don't see UNESCO as a theater for confrontation but one that could build bridges," he said, adding that he had heard no Israeli objections to the bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem.

Yet issues of heritage can be as incendiary as any in the Middle East. Last year, violence erupted in Hebron following an Israeli decision to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in an Israeli state plan to rehabilitate Jewish and Zionist heritage sites.

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