Press Release: Comments on the proposal to recognize Hebron as a World Heritage Site in Danger

The diplomatic struggle over Hebron’s recognition as a World Heritage Site in Danger is reaching the final stretch. At the vote scheduled for Friday, at the 41st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, an interesting diplomatic struggle is about to take place: On the one hand, the religious and historical importance of the Tomb of the Patriarchs is evident to all. Also, the Old City of Hebron bears unique features of a city thousands of years old, with many of its quarters—most of them built during the Mamluk period—still intact. But the Palestinians have made several mistakes in preparing the case for Hebron:

–   The Palestinians focused on the Mamluk and early Ottoman periods while giving insufficient           representation to the deep history of the city including Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic periods in Hebron.

–   They did not provide enough detail about the sites and buildings that have been preserved intact in the Old City.

–  The proposed area leaves out Tel Rumeida, located less than two kilometers from the Tomb of the  Patriarchs, which contains remains spanning from the earliest periods of the city of Hebron: The Canaanite period, the Judean kingdom, the Hellenistic period, and more.

–  The Palestinian proposal mentions the sanctity of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Judaism and          Christianity as well as in Islam, something they did not do in previous draft decisions about the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem at UNESCO. However, the Palestinians could have helped their cause if they had expanded on Hebron’s importance in Judaism.

–  In order for a site to be recognized as a World Heritage Site in Danger, it must be supported by   two-thirds of the members of the committee. The committee has 21 member states and it is not certain that the Palestinians have the required majority. Had the Palestinians proposed Hebron as a World Heritage Site (without the title “in danger”) it may have been much easier to secure the vote. However, such a process would require a greater degree of preparation and Hebron would not have been voted on in the current session of the World Heritage Committee.

In the meantime, Israel is not sitting idly by. It has run a diplomatic campaign against the recognition of Hebron, claiming that the Palestinians ignored the centrality of Hebron in  Jewish heritage. It has also prevented an international and independent professional delegation from accessing and examining the proposed site, which is subject to Israeli control. Israel has further enlisted the United States to support its struggle over Hebron, which could affect the vote on Friday.

If the Palestinians lose the vote on Friday, they should bear some of the responsibility for this failure. It is true that Israel has made things difficult and that American pressure impacts many countries, but this was predictable. Had the Hebron dossier been more thoroughly and methodically prepared, the Palestinians would have had a much higher chance of  obtaining recognition.

It will be interesting to see whether Israel will make due just with criticism for UNESCO for ignoring the Jewish connection to Hebron, or if it will respond by taking  operational steps that reflect its claim to sovereignty over the site.

Politics are always a factor in such decisions, but in Hebron politics and the conflict are destructive in every possible way. Rather than squabbling and scoring points, both sides should have agreed that Hebron ought to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site, and because the Hebron is situated in the West Bank, it should indeed be put forward by  Palestine. The present reality is detrimental to the antiquities and the built-up cultural  heritage of the city, and harms those who cherish and live amongst  them.