First Published: 2017-07-06

Palestinians, Israelis square off on UNESCO vote on Hebron
United Nations' cultural arm will decide whether to declare Old City of Hebron a protected zone this week.
Middle East Online

The Old City

HEBRON - The United Nations' cultural arm will decide whether to declare the Old City of Hebron a protected zone this week, the latest Israeli-Palestinian spat at the international body.

Hebron in the occupied West Bank is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers, who live in a heavily fortified enclave near the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee is expected to vote Friday on a resolution brought by the Palestinians declaring Hebron's Old City, including where the settlers live, an area of outstanding universal value.

The resolution was fast-tracked on the basis that the site was under threat, with the Palestinians accusing Israel of an "alarming" number of violations, including vandalism and damage to properties.

On Tuesday in a separate vote, the heritage committee backed a resolution condemning Israeli actions in Jerusalem, sparking Israeli anger.

Israel says the Hebron resolution -- which refers to the city as "Islamic" -- denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.

Hebron claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world, dating from the chalcolithic period or more than 3,000 years BC, the UNESCO resolution said.

At various times it has been conquered by Romans, Jews, Crusaders and Mamluks.

If the resolution passes it would be seen as a victory for Palestinian diplomacy and would be cited by Israel as a fresh example of what it alleges is the UN's inherent anti-Israel bias.

In May the Jewish state reacted furiously after UNESCO passed a separate resolution on Jerusalem, and has recently prevented UNESCO researchers from visiting Hebron.

The vote, which requires a two-thirds majority of those 21 countries that vote either in favour or against, is likely to be close, with both sides expressing quiet confidence.

- 'Fake news' -

On Tuesday the heritage committee backed the Jerusalem resolution 10 to three, with eight abstentions -- a couple of switched votes would have tipped the balance.

The US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, voiced support for Israel's attempts to block the Hebron resolution.

Alaa Shahin, from the Palestinian Hebron municipality, said UNESCO designation would "help in marketing (the city) as an important global location which will support the tourism sector".

"The second thing is that we'll have a legal body at an international level that will help our efforts to stop any attempts to destroy it."

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP the Palestinian plan was "fake news".

"They are trying to rewrite Jewish history and the history of the region," he said.

Nahshon accused the Palestinian Authority of seeking to pretend that the Tomb of the Patriarchs "is actually part of the Palestinian national heritage."

Shahin said they focussed only on cultural heritage.

- 'Empty talk' -

Hebron itself is a stark example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The few hundred Israelis live closed off in a settlement most of the world considers illegal, with Palestinians largely banned from entering and using nearby streets.

The settlers moved in after the 1967 war in which Israel seized the territory in a move considered illegal by the United Nations.

There had been a Jewish community there decades earlier, but they were forced out by attacks in British Mandatory Palestine.

They are now protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, with Palestinians saying the settlement makes their lives impossible.

At the centre of the row is the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs compound, holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Old Testament figures including Abraham are believed to be buried there.

In 1994, Israeli-American Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims praying at the site, killing 29, before being beaten to death by survivors.

Inside Hebron's Old City, the stalls in the traditional souq are largely empty and in places wire mesh above the shops is choked by empty plastic bottles and other trash.

The mesh was installed to prevent the settlers living above from dropping rubbish onto the Palestinian stall holders, traders said.

Three traders AFP spoke to all said the UNESCO vote was unlikely to change facts on the ground.

"It is empty talk," shopkeeper Jamal Muragh said, adding the Israeli government would not pay attention to the resolution.

"If they want to ignore things, they do."

Faye Abu Afifih, whose tiny shop sells brooms, cloths and other household goods, said dozens of shops had closed in recent years due to the Israeli occupation.

While he accepted the resolution was unlikely to change his reality, it was still symbolically important for him.

"It is a message to all the world that (the Ibrahimi Mosque) is Islamic only, and that is important."

 

Saudi King sets up new state security agency

Hezbollah launches Syria border operation

Intensifying Jihadist-rebel clashes in Syria's Idlib

Police fire tear gas to disperse Morocco protest

Foreign food chains hoping for taste of Iran market

Three Palestinians shot dead in Jerusalem

Nearly 360 injured in Turkey by magnitude 6.7 quake

UN says Saudi to blame for deadly Yemen strike on civilians

Germany reviews arms sales to Turkey

China calls for Gulf crisis talks

Israel bars men under 50 from Jerusalem Old City prayers

Rebel ambush kills 28 regime fighters near Damascus

Turkey slams 'dangerous' Cyprus energy plans

Saudi prince 'arrested over leaked abuse videos'

Israel boosts 'security measures' as Al-Aqsa tensions simmer

Kuwait expels Iranian diplomats over 'terror' cell

Germany vows to overhaul Turkey ties as row escalates

Home cooked meals a relief for fighters in Syria's Raqa

US maintains designation of Iran as top 'state sponsor'

US halting support for Syria rebels

30 civilians dead in anti-IS strikes in Syria

Palestinian civilians urge ICC to speed up probe

Turkey PM opts for stability in light cabinet reshuffle

UN aid flight carrying journalists barred from Yemen

Former IS slaves fight for revenge in Raqa

US, Iran trade tit-for-tat sanctions

20 Yemeni civilians killed in air strike

14 killed in opposition infighting in Syria's Idlib

Morocco sentences 25 to prison over W. Sahara killings

Egypt police kill top militants

Heavy rainfall hits Istanbul causing transport chaos

Palestinians protest Israeli security measures at Al-Aqsa compound

Saudi police question woman who wore miniskirt

Rebels, US-backed Kurds clash in northern Syria

Netanyahu says Hungary is 'standing up for' Israel

Lebanon army to launch operation near Syria border

Morocco delays currency reform amid speculation

Iran parliament vows to fight US 'adventurism'

4 killed in suicide car bomb at Kurdish checkpoint in Syria

Israel opposes Syria truce deal over Iran presence

Egypt to end visas on arrival for Qatari citizens

Erdogan to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Turkey court refuses to free six rights activists

Trump keeps Iran deal, but sanctions will stay in place

UAE FM warns Qatar is 'undermining' GCC allies