Jericho/Tel es-Sultan: a World Heritage Site in Palestine

Emek Shaveh welcomes the news of the upcoming vote by the World Heritage Committee to Inscribe Ancient Jericho/Tel es-Sultan as a World Heritage Site in Palestine.

Next week (10 – 25 September) the World Heritage Committee will gather in Riyadh  for the extended 45th session. Among the many cultural sites that are nominated for inscription on the World Heritage List is Ancient Jericho/Tel es-Sultan due to its “Outstanding Universal Value” to humanity and the understanding of human development.

Emek Shaveh welcomes the news of the upcoming vote by the World Heritage Committee to inscribe Ancient Jericho/Tel es-Sultan (Palestine) on the World Heritage List. Nothing could guarantee the protection and conservation of an important historic site more than the conferring of world heritage status. The commitment by the relevant State authority to preserve the site and resultant buy-in by local communities whose heritage is reaffirmed and recognized by the designation are key components in the safeguarding of historical sites of universal importance.

This highly important step towards the preservation of the site, however, was met with vehement opposition by the extreme right-wing parties in the Israeli government. After the news broke on Sunday, a delegation of MKs from the Land of Israel Caucus in the Knesset (whose co-chairs are Simcha Rothman from the Religious Zionist Party and Limor Har-Son Melech from the Jewish Power party and  includes Amichai Elyahu – the Minister of Heritage, Idit Silman – Minister of Environmental Protection and Orit Struck – Minister of National Missions) held an emergency meeting near Jericho at a site called the Hasmonean Palaces, which is not part of the area designated for World Heritage status and is in Area C. The visit to the site was led by Regavim and their archaeological offshoot – Guardians of Eternity who have been leading a forceful campaign to halt Palestinian development of heritage sites in the West Bank and place these sites under Israeli auspices.

During the visit, the MKs called on State parties to vote against the inscription arguing that the site of Jericho is central in the biblical narrative and therefore should be under the auspices of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

At the site visited by the caucus which, it should be emphasized, is not part of the area slated World Heritage Site, Rothman accused the Palestinian Authority (PA) of intentionally destroying evidence of Jewish life during the Second Temple period and said (pointing to the Hasmonean site, not Tel es-Sultan): “To call this place a Palestinian heritage site is a mockery to the idea of preserving history. It is an ongoing attempt by the Palestinian Authority to culturally appropriate what’s happened here in this place for thousands of years. You can dig here as much as you want and you can never find any evidence for Palestinian history. The idea that UNESCO is trying to support this effort to deny history by the Palestinian Authority should stop.”

In addition to the statements by Israeli policy makers at the Hasmonean site, it was reported that MK Dan Illouz (Likud), a former Forum Kohelet employee, sent a letter to UNESCO’s director general – Audrey Azoulay claiming that recognizing  Jericho/Tel es-Sultan as a world heritage site registered in Palestine is “archaeological falsehood” and will damage the relationship between Israel and UNESCO.

In recent days, the Israeli government and MKs from the extreme-right have been misleading the diplomatic community and international public. The deterioration which they have referred to in the media is not within the boundaries of Tel es-Sultan, the site designated for inscription. The site of the Hasmonean Palaces, which have been a focus of Israeli research and development is in Area C under the auspices of the ICA (Israeli civil administration) and SOA (Staff Officer for Archaeology). Part of that site is inside Area A and has unfortunately been subject to some destruction due to development near the site. However that is not the site  currently slated for World Heritage status and Tel es-Sultan is within Area A under full PA sovereignty.

The professional body advising the World Heritage Committee, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), has assessed Tel es-Sultan’s state of conservation as “satisfactory” and recommended its inscription as a World Heritage Site. Moreover, at Tel es Sultan the Outstanding Universal Values attributed to the site by ICOMOS relate to periods of history (Neolithic, Middle Bronze) which pre-date the chronology represented by the biblical narrative.

The efforts to thwart the designation of Tel es-Sultan by the Israeli Right should be considered in the context of its aggressive campaign over recent years to delegitimize Palestinians claims to land and heritage and promote annexation of the West Bank. A central component of this strategy is to portray the Palestinians as lacking any historical connection to the land and as destroyers of heritage sites. The arguments used in this campaign stem from an ultra-nationalist world view which considers the Jewish people and the State of Israel the only rightful inheritors of the biblical land of Israel from the river to the sea. They quote from a biblical narrative that has little to do with historical or archaeological research of the site. Unfortunately more and more sites in the West Bank have become the focus of contending claims in recent years.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Israeli Right fails to understand that the cultural affiliation of a site and sovereignty are two different things. The designation of Ancient Jericho/Tel es-Sultan as a Palestinian site is informed by  its geo-political status as a site situated in an area governed by the Palestinian Authority. Like many other sites, following the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (the ‘Oslo II accords’), the site was included in Area A  and came under civil governance of the Palestinian Authority.  Hence even the state of Israel had agreed that Tel es-Sultan  is a Palestinian site located in Palestinian territory.

Emek Shaveh response: Tel es-Sultan is a site of universal importance. The site is located in Jericho, which is designated as Area A and therefore governed by the Palestinian Authority. Tel es-Sultan was evaluated by ICOMOS, the professional body advising the World Heritage Committee, to be of Outstanding Universal Value for its Neolithic and Bronze Age remains. The focus on these two periods does not detract from the integrity or importance of other periods represented in the site. All its layers would benefit from a World Heritage status. The attempt by ultra-nationalist Israeli politicians to narrow down the importance of the site to its biblical and national affiliation is contrary to the universal values that inform UNESCO’s approach to heritage and heritage sites. Turning heritage sites into a source for conflict ultimately increases the threat to the site. It is the politics of ultra-nationalism rather than an appreciation for the diverse heritage of humankind  that perpetuates the conflict around antiquity sites.

Heritage sites should be governed and managed by the authority governing the territory in which it is situated. A vote to designate Jericho as a World Heritage Site would officially recognize its outstanding universal value as the oldest and lowest town in the world, embodying  over 10,000 years of human development and its role as a major cultural, ritual and economic center of the Levant in ancient times. (See description on UNESCO’s Tentative List).

Following the evaluation by ICOMOS,  and considering the fact that The Palestinian Authority governs Jericho, it is absolutely appropriate and expedient for the members of the World Heritage Committee to vote to inscribe this unique historic city as a World Heritage Site under Palestinian rule.