TEL AVIV – Israel on Friday banned a UNESCO fact-finding mission from entering the West Bank city of Hebron ahead of a Palestinian-led effort to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs – considered Judaism’s second holiest site – added to the list of endangered world heritage sites in the “State of Palestine.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to grant permits to a group of scholars from the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
“On a strategic and principled level, the State of Israel will not take part in and will not legitimize any Palestinian political move under the guise of culture and heritage,” said Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will vote on July 2 on whether the Old City of Hebron, including the Tomb of Patriarchs, will be included on the endangered sites list. The Palestinian Authority sped up the process with claims of “Israeli violations… including vandalism” at the site. Since, like many international forums, there is an automatic Arab majority at UNESCO, the vote is likely to pass, making Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs the third cultural site in “Palestine” listed by UNESCO as endangered. The other two are Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem and the “cultural landscape of Southern Jerusalem” around Battir.
On both those occasions the fact-finding missions sent by UNESCO prior to the vote found that they were not, in actual fact, endangered and the scholars on those missions advised against adding them to the list, Carmel-Hacohen said. Nevertheless, member states on UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee chose to vote “yes.”
“Thus, it is a waste of everybody’s time and money to send professionals to make recommendations. Because as opposed to the requests of other countries, where expert opinions do have a significant impact, the Palestinians have created for themselves a VIP track to enlist a site that is among the most important in Judaism through a campaign based on lies against the Jews and their state,” Carmel-Hacohen said.
He added that while the Palestinians have never lost a vote at UNESCO “there’s always a first time and we’re getting closer to it.”
Israeli diplomats argue that despite a long list of grievances the Palestinians are circulating regarding alleged Israeli “violations” in Hebron’s Old City, Israeli officials and local Muslim religious leaders get along fine.
Numerous Jewish groups have also protested against the upcoming vote.
“This is but the latest cynical move by the Palestinians to erase Jewish history by rebranding Judaism’s holiest sites, including the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as Muslim,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement last week.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in a letter that the Palestinian claims regarding Hebron are “replete with false information and baseless charges” and called on her to prevent the vote from taking place.
“This is the latest in a series of unfounded charges and accusations meant to denigrate and distort Israel’s stewardship of holy sites,” the group said in a statement.