From Beitar to Jerusalem at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Qatar

Battir is known in Arabic also as “Khirbet al-Yahud” (“the Ruin of the Jews”) and in Hebrew as Beitar (the site of Bar Kochba’s 135 CE revolt against Rome).

A view of the West Bank village of Battir. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A view of the West Bank village of Battir.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
DOHA, Qatar – The Qatari Daily Peninsula put it succinctly: “The Palestinians scored a cultural victory against Israel as UNESCO granted endangered World Heritage Site status to ancient West Bank terraces under threat from the Israeli separation barrier.”
As in 2012 in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Palestine received the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, once again, ICOMOS (the International Committee on Monuments and Sites), consultants to UNESCO, rejected the Palestinian claim to Battir’s “outstanding universal value” as also the grounds for its inscription on an “emergency basis.”
Battir is known in Arabic also as “Khirbet al-Yahud” (“the Ruin of the Jews”) and in Hebrew as Beitar (the site of Bar Kochba’s 135 CE revolt against Rome).
Hosted in Qatar and presented by Lebanon, the decision of the professionals was reversed by a series of pro-Palestinian speakers from the 21-member World Heritage Committee: Algeria, India, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Peru.
The site, which straddles the Green Line with over 30 percent being in Israel proper, was inscribed as “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Central Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir, Palestine,” thereby leaving the borders of the site undefined and probably open to expansion in further sessions.
As it is, Palestine’s official wish list includes: Jericho, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), Mount Gerizim of the Samaritans and the Qumran Caves with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The “emergency” strategy defines Palestinian sites as targets of Israeli violations that must be defended by the international community. The head of the Israeli delegation protested: “There is one route for the Palestinians – ‘emergency/endangered,’ and the normal procedure for everyone else.” The far-from-objective committee chairperson – Qatar’s Sheikha (Princess) Mayassa, asked sarcastically whether “the State of Palestine was not an emergency.”
Israel responded that this vote was “a black day for UNESCO and the further undermining of the World Heritage Committee.”
Friendly members advised me that “ICOMOS’ rejection of Palestinian candidacy paralleled the situation of France regarding its volcanic site at Les Caves Du Puy,” thus implying a Eurovision-style exchange of ballots. Indeed, the series of statements favoring France and overriding the rejection of the professional consultants followed the Palestinian voting pattern.
Those who publicly refused to join the show were Germany, Finland and Poland.
The French ambassador in a public and undiplomatic rebuff stated, “with friends like Germany one did not need enemies.”
The following day, the balance shifted as Israel received the inscription of the Caves of Moresha and Beit Guvrin. After years of rejection of Tel Dan, due to Syrian claims to Israeli territory abutting the Golan beyond the Green Line and a 2011 deferral of Beit Guvrin – despite Lebanon’s attempt once more at sabotage – the Europeans, joined by Colombia, India, Jamaica, Japan, Vietnam and even Muslim Malaysia and Turkey supported Israel’s claim.
The Qatari chair grudgingly congratulated “the States Party,” unable to get her lips around “the State of Israel.” The young diplomatic head of the Israeli delegation, Shuli Davidovich, euphorically invited all the members to visit the site, as “the Land of Israel is a living memory of history and a vibrant present.”
Yet the joy was stillborn, as the agenda moved relentlessly toward the pending joint resolution of Jordan and Palestine on “the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”
After intensive lobbying, Algeria and Lebanon put forward a cosmetically rewritten document that was accepted without debate by secret ballot and a simple majority of 12 to one with eight abstentions.
The Palestinians called for “the safeguarding of the authenticity, integrity and cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem on both sides of its walls and especially denounced Judaization by religious settlers.”
Jordan argued that Israeli excavations “endanger the Jordan peace treaty,” urging action against “Israeli plans to destroy al-Aksa and its obliteration of the city’s Islamic and Byzantine features.”
Canada deplored “the one-sided and unjust adoption of the resolution and the unconscionable singling out of Israel within the World Heritage Committee.”
Algeria called the resolution “an alarm bell for UNESCO monitoring, as Jerusalem is in danger.”
Palestine concluded by demanding that “UNESCO assess the Haram es-Sharif, which the Jews have called ‘the Temple Mount,’ the Citadel, the Western Wall, the Holy Sepulcher and the City Walls.”
The path taken in Qatar,from Beitar to Jerusalem, presages a phalanx of further erosive identity thefts of the Jewish and Christian narratives in the Holy Land.
Interestingly, the Battir file was endorsed by a slough of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish anti-Zionists including Neve Gordon, Ilan Pappe, Stephen Rosenbaum and Eyal Weizman.
As the only Zionist Jewish organization accredited to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, I recall the Indian delegate who asked, “what language bloc are you from: Anglophone, Francophone, Spanish, Arabic, Russophone?” My answer of course, was, “the Hebrew-speaking bloc?” A final irony, one week earlier – following postponement due to Arab pressure – we at last opened our exhibition at UNESCO Paris headquarters, “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land.”
One week later,in the UNESCO World Heritage arena in Doha, Qatar, the authenticity and integrity of the Jewish heritage were again under fire.
The author is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.