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

(JTA) — 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.

Critics of the resolution, passed in a vote in Krakow, Poland on Friday, said it accepts the Muslim and Palestinian version of the ancient city’s history and denies its historic and religious importance to Jews and Christians.

A UNESCO advisory panel also said the resolution gives “little recognition” to Hebron’s Jewish and Christian associations.

Before the vote, Israel’s foreign ministry and Jewish groups urged the members of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to vote against a motion filed earlier this year by the Palestinian Authority, which is seeking world heritage status for the city.

Israeli troops heavily guard Hebron’s small Jewish community, and control access to holy sites there considered sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The motion includes several references to Israeli actions its authors claimed endanger heritage sites in Hebron. It refers to 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.”

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.”

Votes to include sites on 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. Israel’s delegate to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, stormed the desk of the session’s chairman to make Israel’s case. The kerfuffle ended after the chairman, a Polish diplomat, called in security.

A panel of experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an advisory body to UNESCO, also challenged the Palestinian motion, which the council published earlier this week.

“This means that the association of Hebron with Jewish and early Christian societies is given little recognition, and Tel Rumeida and other sites are excluded from the boundaries,” wrote the panel. Tel Rumeida is the site of what many scholars believe was the center of biblical Hebron.

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 the “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 U.N. 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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