Holy Land heritage on hold

It has been a month since Israel left UNESCO, and the effect on the country’s World Heritage wish list is a bit hazy.

WILL THE Caesarea National Park be approved as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO?  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WILL THE Caesarea National Park be approved as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A month has passed since the departure of Israel from UNESCO as an active member, but it remains unclear what the future will hold for the Jewish state’s wish list of archaeological sites to be approved by the organization. And nobody’s really interested in talking about it.
When Israel and the US left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on January 1 over its anti-Israel bias, it wasn’t known what the future impact would be on the sites in the country that are hopefuls for World Heritage status.
Although the two countries remain as observer states to UNESCO, their membership officially ended at the end of 2018.
Israel’s approved list of sites includes Masada, the Old City of Acre, Tel Aviv, the biblical tells of Megiddo, Hatzor and Beersheba, the Incense Route of the Negev’s desert cities, the Baha’i Holy Places in Haifa and in the Western Galilee, Nahal Me’arot and Wadi el-Mughara caves, the caves of Maresha and Beit Guvrin in the Judean lowlands and the necropolis at Beit She’arim.
But while Israel remains a cosignatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972, it still has a long wish list of sites it hopes would gain UNESCO approval. These sites include the triple-arch gate at Dan, the early synagogues of the Galilee, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and its flanking ancient sites, Khirbat al-Minya, Arbel, Deganya and Nahalal, Beit She’an, Caesarea, the White Mosque in Ramle, the craters in the Negev Desert, Mount Karkom, Timna Valley, Crusader fortresses, the Great Rift Valley including the Hula area, Lifta and Ein Kerem.
The last two were added to Israel’s tentative list of sites more recently, in 2015. Most of the rest of the sites were suggested for UNESCO approval and started the process of application in 2000, or shortly thereafter.
The tentative list is an inventory of those properties that each State Party intends to consider for nomination. State Parties are encouraged to submit their tentative lists, properties that they consider to be cultural or natural heritage of “outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List.”
These lists include the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, local and regional governments, local communities, NGOs and other interested parties with partners. But without official representation in UNESCO, moving these sites forward may be on hold for even longer.
TO BE selected, a site must be an already classified landmark, unique in some respect as a geographically and historically identifiable place having special cultural or physical significance, such as the fort complex at Masada or the architecture of Tel Aviv. The site may also signify a remarkable accomplishment of humanity, such as the expansive Incense Route, and serve as evidence of our intellectual history on the planet.
The sites are intended for practical conservation for posterity and are demarcated as protected areas by UNESCO. This was helpful in the case of Avdat, one of the sites that are part of the ancient Incense Route in the Negev that were declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2005. Vandals destroyed remnants of Byzantine settlement in 2009, which provoked the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) to launch a restoration and conservation project with the assistance of the government. The smashed and spray-painted ruins were restored, as the ancient town is an impressive piece of the UNESCO-approved route.
Similarly, Masada was one of the first UNESCO-approved sites in Israel, declared in 2002, and as a result has been the focus of extensive work on behalf of the government to maintain it. Winter torrential rains have often impacted the site, which draws more than a million visitors annually. In 2004, after the government approved an initial round of temporary repairs to the site, a plan for more permanent conservation was estimated to cost $2.2 million.
The currently approved sites do not appear to be affected by Israel’s change in status at UNESCO, according to Tsvika Tsuk, head archaeologist for the INPA. Many of the current sites have signs and flags, indicating they are a World Heritage-listed site according to the body’s requirements.
Tsuk said he also does not know what the status change will indicate for the approved sites or the tentative list of sites Israel has submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage List approval. The INPA is the body that deals directly with the National Park administration of many of the sites, in coordination with the Education Ministry.
Dr. Dalit Atrakchi, secretary-general for Israel’s National Commission for UNESCO on behalf of the ministry, declined to comment on the UNESCO status change. The ministry also did not respond to queries about the sites.
The Antiquities Authority also declined to comment on the sites, and deferred to the INPA.
Israel has been a member state of UNESCO since 1949, but its relationship with the organization has been tenuous at best. The global cultural body has registered nine sites within Israel on its World Heritage List, but the body’s pro-Palestinian stances have created increasing friction with the US and Israel. In 2011, both countries halted payment of their annual fees, after UNESCO became the first UN body to recognize Palestine as a state.
Israel owed UNESCO more than $8.5m. by the time it left the organization, and the US’s debt has reached more than $617m. Both countries lost voting rights in the organization in 2013 over their failure to repay the dues, but they maintained all other participation rights.
The situation intensified in 2016 after the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states pushed forward resolutions at UNESCO’s executive board that spurned Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, describing the holiest sites in Judaism exclusively by their Muslim names of al-Haram al-Sharif and the Buraq Plaza.
UNESCO has listed the birthplace of Jesus at the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem, and the cultural landscape of southern Jerusalem in Battir, as sites under Palestine in a separate entry on its website.
Jerusalem also has remained a rough spot. The Old City and Jerusalem’s walls are also considered a separate entry for UNESCO, as a site proposed by Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan supplies funding needed to operate the (Jerusalem) Wakf Islamic religious trust, which is known for managing the current Islamic edifices on and around the Temple Mount in the Old City. Such edifices include the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Accordingly, the PA and Arab states have pushed forward resolutions and texts disavowing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
THE FUTURE for Israel and the US within UNESCO may be particularly hazy in the upcoming years.
Since she took office in November 2017, UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay made various attempts to remedy the conflicting situation and to prevent the Israeli-American exit.
UNESCO had developed a routine of revisiting Jerusalem’s definition and attempting to pass resolutions that would contain controversial language, usually against Israel. In 2018, Azoulay managed to stymie efforts to pass texts that would stoke conflict-related ire. However, UNESCO’s executive board still passed an addendum that affirmed that while Jerusalem is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Israel is not considered the sovereign of the city.
Azoulay pushed forward again in June 2018, as UNESCO launched its first policy guide for educators on antisemitism, and the organization held a forum on the issue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s session in New York later that year.
However, it appeared to not be enough to assuage the US and Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boycotted the antisemitism session, and the departure was still in effect.
“If and when UNESCO ends its bias against Israel, stops denying history and starts standing up for the truth, Israel will be honored to rejoin,” Netanyahu said at the time.
Then again, this isn’t the first time that Israel has not been part of UNESCO. The US also has historically announced pulling out of UNESCO: former president Ronald Reagan did the same thing in December 1983.
Among the specific events that eventually led up to the US exit was a 1974 vote in UNESCO to exclude Israel because it allegedly altered “historical features of Jerusalem” while excavating the city, and because Israel had “brainwashed” Arabs in the region. It was then that the US Congress suspended appropriations for the organization, which forced the agency to reconsider its vote. Israel was readmitted to UNESCO in 1976, and the following year the US restored its funding.
So while Israel’s readmission may be possible in the future, it appears that UNESCO may have to change its tone more dramatically to win the Holy Land back. In the meantime, some of Israel’s most significant sites – namely, Caesarea, Lake Kinneret, Beit She’an and the Negev craters – have been waiting for approval for nearly two decades, without an answer in sight.