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Taking Sides: UNESCO and Palestinian Heritage

Ramifications for world heritage and human rights as UNESCO becomes embroiled in the West Bank conflict

At the end of last year, the general assembly of UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member. The Israeli reaction to this act was dramatic. The government of Israel froze its connection with UNESCO and approved 2,000 new settler homes. The more significant effect on UNESCO was the US government’s decision to freeze its annual support of $80 million, just over a fifth of the organisation’s budget.

This clash of culture, heritage and new settlements is longstanding. The political conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is fuelled by a heritage debate about authenticity. Both nations are trying to prove they are the indigenous inheritors of the land and custodians of its holy history.

As a UNESCO member, Palestine now has the right to submit applications for significant historical sites to be declared World Heritage status. At the end of January, the city of Bethlehem and Church of the Nativity were submitted as the first Palestinian nominations. Bethlehem is the first on an inventory of 20 sites that had already been submitted to the World Heritage Committee in Durban at 2005.

The 2013 nomination will be the city of Hebron and the Tombs of the Patriarchs. Today this is one of the most sensitive sites in the West Bank. The 600 Jewish settlers that live in the heart of the old city control its daily life, so the Palestinian move to declare Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site undermines Israeli military and political hegemony. Something similar happened in 1981 when the old city of Jerusalem was nominated a World Heritage site by the Jordanian government. This nomination was accepted, possibly because of the fact that Israel had already conquered and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.

The Israeli resistance to recognising and accepting Palestinian heritage is rooted in the conflicting pressures of history and politics. On the cultural historical level, Israel is haunted by the fact that its existence is based on destruction. Over 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and 700,000 Palestinian refugees were uprooted from the country. At the political level, UNESCO’s decision reflects broad international recognition and support for the Palestinian case.

For many years the Israeli state tried to erase Palestinian cultural heritage inside Israel. The return to a national territorial identity involved an attempt to eliminate these same parameters of Palestinian indigenous existence and presence in the landscape. Elements of geography, data and cultural heritage were the target of erasure in order to realise the imaginary ‘tabula rasa’ of the land, precipitating a ‘cultural cleansing’ of Palestinian heritage. Last month there was a hint of change when an Israeli court in Jerusalem stopped a development plan on the site of the village of Lifta. This village at the western entrance to Jerusalem is the only one to retain its original structure and has become an unofficial memorial to the other destroyed Palestinian villages.

The situation in the occupied territories of the West Bank is different. Part of the political struggle over the future of the occupied West Bank is focused on the future of about 250 Jewish settlements. Some of the settlers in some of these settlements base their right to be there on military power and biblical promise. Two years ago, the Israeli government announced a national heritage plan that included two sites in the West Bank: Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron. After strong international pressure those two sites were removed from the plan.

The concept of world heritage was originally intended to enhance the universal significance of chosen sites rather than encourage them to be seen as national symbols. That aspiration has proved illusory, since it seems that politics and heritage cannot be separated.The question now is how to mitigate the corrosive effects of this relationship.

Photo: Ammar Awad

 

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