The UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) voted 12 to three on Friday to recognize Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as a World Heritage Site, with six countries abstaining — a move acclaimed by Palestinian officials and slammed by their Israeli and American counterparts.
The committee simultaneously added Hebron to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Palestine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs applauded the outcome as “the only logical and correct decision,” adding that the vote would help to recognize the Old City of Hebron as a site “under threat due to the irresponsible, illegal, and highly damaging actions of Israel, the occupying power,” which the office said “maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion.”
“Today, Palestine and the world, through UNESCO, celebrate Hebron as part of world heritage, a value that transcends geography, religion, politics, and ideology,” the Palestinian Foreign Affairs statement read. “This vote celebrated facts and rejected the shameless high-profile political bullying and attempts at extortion. Hebron is a city in the heart of the State of Palestine that hosts a site invaluable to world heritage and holy to billions of people around the world of the three monotheistic religions.”
Hebron’s old city is the only city-center in the occupied West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, where Palestinians and Israeli settlers live side-by-side. There are around 200,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers living in the city center. However, the cohabitation is anything but peaceful — instead Hebron is considered one of the most intense focal points of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
Rejecting the vote, the spokesperson for Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emmanuel Nahshon, took to Twitter after the decision to condemn the UNESCO outcome as a promotion of “lies.”
“The UNESCO decision on Hebron and the Tomb of Patriarchs is a moral blot. This irrelevant organization promotes fake history. Shame on UNESCO,” Nashon said. “The Jewish people’s glorious history in Israel started in Hebron. No UNESCO lies and fake history can change that. Truth is eternal”
Naftali Bennet, Israel’s education minister and the chairman of the country’s committee to UNESCO, called the UNESCO ruling an attempt to “serve those who try to wipe the Jewish state off the map.”
“Israel won’t renew cooperation with UNESCO as long as it continues to serve as a tool for political attacks instead of being a professional organization,” he said, according to Haaretz.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya told Mondoweiss that she is “overwhelmingly happy” over the outcome of the UNESCO vote, which she believes will offer protection to the contentious city.
“We cannot thank the UNESCO committee enough for voting to protect the Old City of Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque,” Maaya said. “I believe this will positively affect the situation in Hebron because now the site is and should be preserved by UNESCO, which is more than needed.”
“As the Minister of tourism I think this decision is going to boost tourism as well, I think more and more tourists will make Hebron a stop on their visit — the UNESCO decision has nothing but positive impacts and we cannot give enough thanks to UNESCO and all the countries that voted in favor.”
Despite the plethora of religious and historically significant sites in the oPt, the tourism industry accounts for just 6 percent of its GDP, according to the Palestinian Investment Promotion Agency. Maaya’s office is constantly trying to fight the barriers working against the growth of the industry, which struggles due to side effects of the occupation, she explained.
While Maaya said she looks forward to the potential financial boost from an increase in tourism in Hebron, she also thinks foreigners making their way to Hebron, one of the most controversial and dangerous cities in the occupied West Bank, will foster support for the greater Palestinian cause.
“The situation in the Old City of Hebron and the area around it is very difficult, the Israelis are creating daily problems in the Old City that arise from the presence of Israeli settlers and army,” she said. “When I mentioned that this site will be protected under the new classification, it also means UNESCO will not allow the Israelis to do whatever they want there. As it is now, the Israelis think and work only as an occupying force in Hebron, they don’t care about protecting the Palestinians there anymore than they care about protecting the historical Old City and other important sites.”
Omar Abedrabo, a professor of Islamic history and archeology at Bethlehem University, told Mondoweiss that several historically important sites in Hebron have been destroyed by settlers renovating homes and business without any input or regulation from the Israeli or Palestinian Departments of Antiquities.
Abedrabo said he hopes the UNESCO ruling will help change the status quo and move toward better protection of the historical sites in the city.
“As it is now the settler population has destroyed many important artifacts and structures without looking up any documentation of the historical significance of a building or structure. This should be forbidden,” Abedrabo said. “It is a complicated situation in Hebron but I hope this UNESCO decision can help to improve things, we will see with time what happens.”
According to Abedrabo, there are areas in Hebron’s Old City that document periods in history which are rare.
“We must celebrate UNESCO’s decision because It is particularly important to protect this area — there are sites of historical importance that will be lost forever if not protected, for instance, the remains of the Sufi period in Hebron during the Mamluk rule between 1250-1516 AD, if those are lost there is no getting it back”
Abedrabo said that as it is now, the Palestinian Authority has no power in the area, meaning the Israeli government will be in charge of upholding the UNESCO status, which he believes is problematic since the Israeli government worked against the UNESCO vote.
“The city of Hebron is an open archive of history, it’s so important to protect these sites, which are under threat from the Israeli occupation,” he said. “But the UNESCO vote is no guarantee — a huge threat to the area are the Israeli settlers who act with impunity — the settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers, and the Israeli soldiers are protected by the Israeli government, and the Israeli government does not support Hebron’s Old City and Tomb of Patriarchs as a UNESCO site.”