Palestinians Launch Fresh UNESCO Bid to Deny Jewish Ties to Hebron Holy Sites
Palestinian representatives at the global cultural and heritage organization UNESCO are campaigning for the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Old City in the West Bank town of Hebron to be designated as “Endangered World Heritage Sites” at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Poland next month.
A key holy site for the Jewish faith, the Cave of the Patriarchs – known as the Machpela Cave in Hebrew –houses the tombs of Abraham and his wife Sarah, their son Isaac, and their grandson Jacob and his wife Leah.
The site is also revered by Muslims, who regard Abraham and his progeny as prophets belonging to the pre-Islamic period.
Since 2009, when the Palestinians gained entry to UNESCO, their strategy has been to force UNESCO to consider Jewish holy sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Western Wall in Jerusalem – which they refer to as the “Al-Buraq Wall” – as purely Islamic.
In July 2016, a UNESCO executive board meeting passed a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. A similar measure concerning the Cave of the Patriarchs will now be discussed at UNESCO’s 41st World Heritage Committee meeting in the Polish city of Krakow on July 12.
Jewish groups have begun mobilizing against the Palestinian effort. “The Palestinians have declared their intention to once again hijack the Heritage Committee to take over the Machpela Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site until now open to worshipers of all three monotheistic religions,” said Shimon Samuels, the international relations director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), and a veteran of the battles at UNESCO over Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In a letter to Prof. Jacek Purchla, the Polish chair of the forthcoming Krakow meeting, Samuels urged him to heed the advice of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the professional consultant to UNESCO on conserving world heritage sites. A Palestinian attempt in 2012 to gain exclusive control of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – the birthplace of Jesus – was opposed by ICOMOS, which determined that the church was being properly cared for by the Israeli authorities.
“The Palestinians and their retinue must be restrained from further fast track tactics and mayhem to monopolize the session, at the cost of truly endangered sites awaiting attention,” Samuels wrote to Purchla. “As Chairperson, you cannot permit on Polish soil – where a third of the Jewish people perished – an outrageous theft of Judaism’s narrative and heritage at a Krakow UN conference in the very shadow of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
On Friday, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the international body’s chief was not planning to intervene in the current Hebron dispute. “The Secretary-General believes that key issues between Israel and Palestinians need to be dealt with in direct negotiations,” he said.
Hebron has been a flashpoint between Jews and Arabs for nearly a century. However, the Jewish community has consistently recognized the right of Muslims to access the site. At a UN General Assembly meeting in 2016, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon produced a copy of a 1928 undertaking signed by the “National Council of the Jews in the Land of Israel” which stated that “no-one has any intention of infringing on the right of Muslims to the places that are holy to them.”
In 1929, Hebron was the site of an infamous massacre of more than sixty Jews murdered by Muslims convinced by their leaders of a Jewish plot to take over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.