The Palestinians say the Old City is in danger due to Israeli practices and that their application must be treated with urgency.
Palestinians bid for Hebron Old City Unesco recognition
Jerusalem // Palestinian diplomats are seeking the recognition of the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank as a World Heritage site in a bid to muster more international support to shake off Israeli occupation.
The Palestinians say the Old City is in danger due to Israeli practices and that their application must be treated with urgency. The site is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
The vote will take place Friday at the meeting of the Unesco World Heritage Committee that got underway on Sunday in Krakow, Poland.
The Palestinians joined Unesco in 2011 in a boost to their independence hopes and much to the chagrin of Israel. The Palestinian bid to recognise the Old City has been doggedly opposed by Israel.
Heritage experts have given the application a good chance of passing.
"We believe the Old City of Hebron has significant universal value for the people," said Omar Awadallah, head of the Palestinian foreign ministry's UN department. "It meets all the articles of the 1972 Convention on Preserving Cultural and National Heritage. Palestine is a member of Unesco and we are exercising our membership.
"It's one of the oldest cities in the region. It's a pilgrimage site for the three monotheistic religions, a cultural centre and a crossroads between southern Palestine, Sinai, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula," Mr Awadallah added.
Hebron is one of the tensest areas of the West Bank, with about 800 militantly nationalistic Jewish settlers who are heavily protected by the army living among more than 100,000 Palestinians. The settlers believe they have a divine right to the area, citing the bible's account of the patriarch Abraham's purchase of land there to bury his wife Sarah and the belief that other patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jews are interred there. But Muslims also revere Abraham, or Ibrahim, as a prophet and view him as having been a Muslim. He is mentioned in the Quran many times. Palestinian children are taught that the Ibrahimi Mosque is the fourth holiest site in Islam after mosques in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Hebron had a centuries old Jewish community until it was eliminated by a deadly Palestinian pogrom in 1929. In 1994, a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslims who were praying in the Ibrahimi mosque.
Mr Awadallah said Israel is trying to erase the Palestinian tie to Hebron. "From all the practices in the Old City by the occupying power its very clear they want to demolish any connection of the Palestinian people to this place and falsify or change the current cultural sites."
"Israel is not giving any permission to make restorations in the Old City because of the closing of all the sites. The articles of the 1972 convention are very clear about how to describe a site in danger. The armed conflict itself is reason to consider it in danger."
Israel barred a Unesco technical team from visiting the Old City to assess the Palestinian application. Mr Awadallah said this was not surprising. "Any technical committee visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territory would find the Israeli practices are destructive for the cultural heritage, economic rights and all other aspects of the rights of the Palestinian people so they prevent them from visiting because they would understand the real damage Israel is causing."
A Unesco body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, said in a report issued over the weekend that the Palestinian application had overly focused on Hebron's Muslim history at the exclusion of its Judeo-Christian heritage, the Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday. Mr Awadallah disagreed. "We are talking about preserving the heritage here, we are not talking about religion, not Islam, Christianity or Judaism. We are talking about preserving the building as is because all of Palestine is important to the three main religions."
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon described the Palestinian application as a "historical lie, it's a Palestinian attempt to create a false reading of history and a false reality. The Old City of Hebron is fundamental in the history of the Jewish people and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Palestinians.
He said Israel barred the Unesco team from visiting because "it would not have been helpful or fruitful in any way."