Palestinians Hope to List Hebron As UNESCO World Heritage Site
As part of its efforts to garner international support for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Palestinians have appealed to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to protect the Old City of Hebron from Israel by making it a Palestinian world heritage site. UNESCO is due to vote on the issue next week, and Israel, which sharply opposes the move, is pushing for a secret ballot.
Earlier this month, Israel blocked a UNESCO team from visiting the city, where about 800 Jewish settlers live among 100,000 Palestinians. At the center of the old city is the traditional burial place of Abraham, which Palestinians call the Ibrahimi mosque, and Jews, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Hebron in general, and the religious site in particular, has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel is pushing UNESCO to hold a secret ballot rather than the traditional open vote, as it believes that in an open vote, the 21 states will vote in favor of the Palestinian request. Although “Palestine” has not been recognized by the UN as an official state, it has a special status as a “non-state observer” and can join UN bodies such as UNESCO.
“Palestine has been a member of UNESCO since 2011 and it is a normal thing for us to apply to UNESCO to list our valuable locations as Palestinian sites in the World Heritage sites.” Omar Abdallah, the head of the United Nations department at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Media Line.
Abdallah explained that this is not the first time Israel has prevented international missions from entering Palestinian territories.
“Israel aims to prevent them from seeing the Israeli violations against the Palestinian heritage and culture, but this time is special and unique,” he said.
The sole purpose of recognizing the old city of Hebron as a Palestinian site is to protect the city and mark its historical value worldwide.
“Regardless of any party’s affiliation to the old city of Hebron, it is located in a Palestinian territory and should be listed accordingly; it has global value and it will be reachable for everyone.” Abdallah added.
In the Book of Genesis Hebron is listed as the place where Abraham – the founder of monotheism and the forefather of both Judaism and Islam – purchased the “Cave of Machpela” as a special burial site for his beloved wife Sarah.
“Hebron is the root of the Jews’ national history, it important to give honor and respect to the parent of the Jewish people who were buried there three thousand years ago,” Yishai Fleischer, the spokesman of the Jewish Community in Hebron, told The Media Line.
Fleischer considers UNESCO as biased against Israel, and says that listing the site as Palestinian is tantamount to destroying Jewish heritage. Last month, UNESCO passed a resolution that said that Israel has no claims to Jerusalem – a move that angered Jews worldwide.
Fleischer says that Hebron is a mixed Arab-Jewish city.
“The Palestinian authority is around here partially, but also there a Jewish city right next to it; I wouldn’t call the old city a Palestinian area,” he said.
Palestinians say that Hebron has long been an important Muslim site.
“Since the Islamic opening to these lands, the Ibrahimi Mosque is considered the fourth holy site to Muslims after Mecca, the Al-aqsa mosque (in Jerusalem) and the Al-Nabwi mosque (in Medina in Saudi Arabia)”, Ismael Abu Alhalaweh, the General Manager of Hebron’s Endowments told The Media Line.
Muslims travel to Hebron from around the world to pray, he said, and Israeli moves have been endangering that right.
“Israel has been surrounding the old city with check-points and barriers,” he said. “People must pray under the supervision of Israeli armed security forces, and each Palestinian has to be security checked on the way in and out.”
In 1994, during the holy month of Ramadan – a month of fasting to honor the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief, a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers inside the mosque while praying. After that, Israel divided the holy site into two areas — half mosque and half synagogue – with separate entrances.
A formal arrangement to share the site was reached in 1997 with Jews and Muslims each getting sole access to the site on religious holiday.