U.N. agency links Hebron, Palestinians
Heritage-site label infuriates Israelis
JERUSALEM — The United Nations cultural agency on Friday declared the old city in the West Bank town of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site, a decision that angered Israeli officials who say the move negated the deep Jewish ties to the biblical town and its ancient shrine.
The move was the latest chapter in Israel’s contentious relationship with UNESCO, an agency it accuses of being an anti-Israeli tool that makes decisions out of political considerations.
While the Palestinians welcomed the action, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “another delusional decision by UNESCO.”
Both Jews and Muslims revere the same site in Hebron as the traditional burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs — Jews call it the Tomb of the Patriarchs, while for Muslims it is the Ibrahimi Mosque.
The 12-3 vote, with six abstentions, came on a secret ballot at an annual UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Krakow, Poland. The proposal came from the Palestinian side. Israel contended that its historic links to Hebron were ignored and its ambassador to UNESCO left the session.
UNESCO spokesman Lucia Iglesias confirmed that Hebron’s old city was put on the agency’s World Heritage list and on the list of sites in danger. She would not elaborate, saying the exact wording would be decided later.
The decision obliges the World Heritage committee to review its status annually.
“This is a historical development because it stressed that Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque historically belong to the Palestinian people,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said UNESCO’s “automatic Arab majority succeeded in passing the proposed resolution that attempts to appropriate the national symbols of the Jewish people.”
She added: “This is a badge of shame for UNESCO, who time after time chooses to stand on the side of lies.”
Netanyahu expressed outrage that UNESCO determined the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron “is a Palestinian site, meaning not Jewish, and that the site is in danger.”
“Not a Jewish site?!” he asked sarcastically. “Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah — our patriarchs and matriarchs!”
Netanyahu pointed to extremists blowing up religious sites in the Middle East and said, “It is only in those places where Israel is, such as Hebron, that freedom of religion for all is ensured.”
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the vote “does no one any good and causes much harm.”
“It represents an affront to history. It undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful. And it further discredits an already highly questionable U.N. agency,” she said in a statement.
She had sent a letter to two senior U.N. officials before the vote, urging them to withhold the designation from UNESCO, according to the U.S. Mission to the U.N.
Hebron is part of the West Bank, a territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community considers it to be occupied.
Palestinians claim the West Bank is an integral part of a future independent state, a position that is widely backed internationally.
Israel says the territory’s fate, along with other core issues like security, should be resolved in negotiations.
In the meantime, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank housing about 400,000 Israelis. The Palestinians — and most of the world — consider these to be illegal obstacles to peace. Israel says the future of the settlements also must be decided through talks.
Hebron is especially contentious. Several hundred ultranationalist settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves in the city amid about 170,000 Palestinians. There is frequent friction between the two populations.
Many viewed Friday’s UNESCO decision as the latest example of an ingrained anti-Israel bias at the U.N. and its institutions, where Israel and its allies are outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
Although their rocky relationship goes back decades, recent resolutions by UNESCO also drew outrage in Israel for diminishing the Jewish ties to Jerusalem.
In September, Israel suspended cooperation with UNESCO after it adopted a resolution that Israel says denies the deep historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Israel’s national UNESCO committee, said after Friday’s vote that “Israel will not resume its cooperation with UNESCO so long as it remains a political tool, rather than professional organization.”
Israeli border police stand guard on the site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2013.