UNESCO passes controversial motion calling Hebron ‘endangered heritage site in Palestine’

(JTA) – The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, passed in a secret ballot a Palestinian-led motion calling Hebron an “endangered heritage site” in “Palestine” despite protests by Israel and Jewish groups.

Before the vote in Krakow, Poland on Friday, Israel’s foreign ministry and Jewish groups urged the committee members to vote against a motion filed earlier this year by the Palestinian Authority, which is seeking world heritage status for the city.

The motion, which includes several references to Israeli actions its authors claimed endanger heritage sites in Hebron., mentions the “Al-Ibrahimi Mosque/The Tomb of Patriarchs” site, stating it dates back to the 1st century BCE to “protect the tombs of the Patriarch Abraham/Ibrahim and his family.”

Votes to inscribe sites onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List are usually done by a show of hands among all the member states. But three countries – Poland, Croatia and Jamaica – requested a secret ballot, The Times of Israel reported Friday. Several states objected, leading to a shouting match between delegates, and Israeli Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen storming to the desk of the session’s chair to make Israel’s case. The kerfuffle ended after the chair, a Polish diplomat, called in security.

The site “came to be revered as a pilgrim site for the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, part of a triangle of holy sites with Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” the motion states. However, it then focuses entirely on the history of Hebron’s “Old Town during the Mamluk Period between 1250 and 1517 AD.”

“This means that the association of Hebron with Jewish and early Christian societies is given little recognition, and Tell Rumeida [an area of Biblical Hebron] and other sites are excluded from the boundaries,” wrote a panel of experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an advisory body to UNESCO, in an evaluation of the Palestinian motion, which the council published earlier this week.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is an observer group at the vote in Krakow, in a statement Thursday called resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to heritage sites “greatest assault on Judaism since the Middle Ages.”

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of the Shurat Hadin organization, which helped organize a letter to Poland’s foreign ministry by 12 Holocaust survivors urging Poland to vote against the Palestinian motion, called the UNESCO effort a “pitiful resolution that creates a Palestinian narrative that is a complete lie.”

The Palestinian motion states that “since 1967, the impact of settlers, (there are two Israeli settlements in the property), [caused] further destruction of buildings and the development of new urban areas in the periphery of the town.”

On Tuesday, the heritage committee of UNESCO passed a resolution submitted by the council’s Arab states rejecting Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Ten countries voted for the resolution with three opposed and eight abstaining.

Calling Israel the “occupying power,” the measure said the UN body “regrets the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works, projects and other illegal practices in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law.”


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