The Palestinian Authority (PA) is asking the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee to register the Old City of Hebron, including the Cave of the Patriarchs located there, as a Palestinian World Heritage Site.

It’s a fresh bid by the PA to reject ancient Jewish ties to the Land of Israel and to pressure the UN body to deny the Jewish people’s attachments to sacred sites in their biblical heartland.

These ongoing efforts have already achieved a degree of success at UNESCO, as we highlighted in recent posts:

Basically, since 2011 when UNESCO recognized Palestine as a state, the PA has been trying to “hijack the agenda” by forcing the body to consider Jewish holy sites as purely Islamic (Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the ancient terraces of Battir were inscribed on the World Heritage list back in 2012 and 2014 respectively, on the grounds that both sites are endangered).

So there’s nothing surprising about this latest call to place Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs—Judaism’s second-holiest spot—on the “danger list”.

But what makes this battle at UNESCO over Jewish holy places particularly appalling is that the World Heritage Committee is set to debate inscribing Hebron to the “State of Palestine” when it convenes for its 41st meeting from July 2-12 in Krakow, Poland.

Will UNESCO really permit on Polish soil, where a full third of Europe’s Jews perished, another “outrageous theft of Judaism’s narrative and heritage”—in the “very shadow of Auschwitz-Birkenau”?

The Machpelah Cave and the City of Hebron: Judaism’s Second-Holiest Site

The Cave of the Patriarchs (known as the Machpelah Cave in Hebrew) is a Herodian structure that houses both Jewish places of worship and the Ibrahimi Mosque.

[credit The Times of Israel]

The Bible clearly records the purchase of the Cave and its adjoining fields by Abraham some 3700 years ago.

The patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are buried here. Abraham’s tomb and that of his wife Sarah, their son Isaac and their grandson Jacob and his wife Leah were laid to rest there (the Cave is also holy in Islam because Abraham and his progeny are revered as prophets belonging to the pre-Islamic era).

[Cave of Patriarchs – Abraham][Photo Credit William Jacobson, 2015]

.

[Cave of the Patriarchs – Jacob][Photo Credit William Jacobson, 2015]

.

[Cave of the Patriarchs – Leah][Photo credit William Jacobson, 2015]

Basically, the Cave of Machpelah is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and Hebron is Judaism’s second-holiest city after Jerusalem.

Expulsion and Return of Jews from Hebron

There’s been a near-constant Jewish presence in the city for centuries.

The Jewish community living there consistently recognized the religious rights of Muslims. But in 1929, in a brutal pogrom, Hebron became the site of an infamous massacre of nearly 70 defenseless Jews.

The riot was instigated by the notorious antisemite Haj Amin al-Husseini, the British-installed mufti of Jerusalem and Palestinian national leader at the time.

He managed to incite the Muslim Arabs to violence with the wild and baseless lie that Jews were plotting to take over and destroy Jerusalem’s mosques. The anti-Jewish rioting that ensued there was awful, but in Hebron, as we described, it was especially vicious, Anniversary of 1929 Hebron Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing of Jews.

Some years later, a small group of Jews tried to return to the city, but the British decided they couldn’t be adequately protected, and to prevent another massacre they were all moved out.

After Israel’s war of independence in 1948, the area fell under exclusive Jordanian control and no Jews were allowed to visit the holy place—much less live there. This illegal and immoral denial of Jewish access, in complete contravention of the 1949 Armistice agreements, was finally overturned on June 8, 1967 when the IDF liberated Hebron, Six-Day War Day 4—Egypt and Jordan Defeated.

One year later, Hebron was among the first Jewish communities to be rebuilt and reconstituted in Judea and Samaria.

Palestinian Authority Wants Cave of the Patriarchs Designated a “World Heritage Site in Danger”

As we discussed, back in April of last year UNESCO ratified a resolution sponsored by the PA and Arab states which ignored Jewish and Christian historical ties to Jerusalem. The resolution referred to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, and the Western Wall only by their Muslim names and condemned Israel as the “occupying power” for actions taken at the sites.

The resolution sparked an international outcry.

But this didn’t stop UNESCO from passing another resolution a few months later during its meeting in Paris in October 2016.

That resolution again rejected any legal or historical Israeli links to Jerusalem, and called Israel an “occupying power” in its capital city. It also included clauses denying any Jewish connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.

Then a month ago, the UNESCO executive board ratified yet another resolution condemning Israel for archeological projects and construction in Jerusalem and Hebron, which “harmfully affect the authenticity and integrity” of the sites. The resolution also insists that Hebron is an “integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The PA’s current campaign builds on these prior anti-Israel UNESCO resolutions and this string of “hallucinatory outrageous votes” to claim that the Cave of the Patriarchs should now be designated as an “Endangered World Heritage Site”.

[Credit: The Algemeiner]

There are over 1,050 such sites throughout the world.

The registration is a cumbersome process and typically takes a number of years. But the PA is reportedly exploiting a clause in the regulation that allows a “fast-track” procedure if the site can be shown to be endangered.

PA documents explaining the rationale for the inscription and a technical evaluation by a World Heritage Committee professional subgroup aren’t yet posted on UNESCO’s website.

But according to media reports, the PA is claiming that the Cave of the Patriarchs is in danger of destruction by Israel (the “occupying force”) because of an “exceptionally large concrete casting” that’s been put in place at the site.

The charge is completely bogus.

Ambassador Carmel Shama-HaCohen, head of the Israeli delegation to UNESCO, notes that only a “small addition” was added to the site and that it was fully “coordinated” with the Islamic waqf (the Muslim authorities which administer the site).

[Carmel Shama-HaCohen]

That is, the waqf gave its permission to complete this archeological project (the reality is that for decades Israel has worked together with Hebron’s Muslim religious authorities on repairs and upkeep, and to ensure access for Muslims).

It’s a key point emphasized in a letter that The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent to UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova last week.

In it, Conference chairman Stephen M. Greenberg and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein told Bokova that it was important for UNESCO to “stand up for the truth”:

Palestinian officials, including the leader of the Wakf of Hebron and the Wakf of the Cave, have praised the cooperation of Israeli authorities responsible for the security of these holy sites in Hebron and public safety arrangements for worshipers at the Cave…The Palestinian religious leaders have publicly acknowledged Israeli respect for freedom of worship for all and expressed appreciation for the sensitivity shown by the Israeli authorities in responding to Palestinian special requests.”

An Endangered Holy Site: the PA-Controlled Tomb of Joseph in Nablus

So those who actually work at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs say that the site is being well-maintained by Israeli authorities, who are also ensuring religious freedoms there.

Since that’s the case, it’s grossly unfair for the PA to be fast-tracking a place that’s under no danger—and is open to the devout of all three monotheistic faiths—at the expense of the planet’s other truly at-risk sacred places.

Countries often work for years to get such sites the designation that they deserve, fulfilling all the necessary requirements for an inscription.

Such arguments about equity and fairness probably won’t sway the members of the World Heritage Committee though, none of whom are among the ten countries which voted in favor of Israel in last month’s UNESCO resolution (the 21 committee members are: Angola, Azerbaijan, Burkino Faso, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Republic of Tanzania, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe).

But it’s odd that this argument isn’t getting more traction with Bokova or UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres.

Both publicly signaled their dismay and opposition to the prior PA motions, so you’d think that they’d now be lending their support to those mobilizing against this latest Palestinian effort.

So far though, neither Bokova nor Gutteres appear to be especially worked up about this latest Hebron bid.

As far as I can tell, Bokova has yet to speak out about it.

And last Friday, Gutteres noted that he wasn’t planning to intervene in “the current Hebron dispute”, on the grounds that it’s a “UNESCO issue” in “their mandate” and the “key issues between Israel and Palestinians need to be dealt with in direct negotiations between the parties.”

Given that the entire PA strategy is predicated on pressuring Israel in international forum in order to avoid having to engage in direct face-to-face negotiations, this is a bizarre remark.

It’s a shame too given the number of endangered sites that await the UN body’s attention.

It’s a long list that at some point should also include the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus—the biblical city of Shechem—which is currently under PA control.

Located in Area A of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, the PA has sole jurisdiction over this revered pilgrimage site. It’s obligated under signed agreement to both maintain the site and provide free, unfettered access to Jews who wish to pray there.

But the PA hasn’t lived up to any of these obligations.

As we’ve noted in several posts, the pilgrimage site has been the target of attack on multiple occasions, sometimes even with the complicity of PA security forces. Devout Jews are authorized to go there on occasional trips but they can visit only in the dead of night with heavily armed security details, which often come under attack too by Palestinian Muslim rioters:

Bottom line: Hebron’s holy site is well-protected and “properly cared for” by Israeli authorities. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, but the PA nonetheless wants the international community to view it as a wise decision to place Hebron’s sacred spaces under its exclusive control.

Go figure.

Conclusion

For years the Palestinian Authority—Israel’s so-called ‘partner for peace’—has been spearheading a bigoted and discriminatory campaign to “delegitimize Israel’s historic connection to her geographic and spiritual roots” by declaring holy Jewish places as exclusively Muslim.

Now it’s setting its sights on Hebron.

[Cave of the Patriarchs – Israeli Schoolchildren][Photo credit William Jacobson, 2015]

It’s using “false claims” to get the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to “linguistically reclassify” Judaism’s second-holiest city—one of the four Jewish holy cities mentioned in the Bible.

As Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-HaCohen told The Jerusalem Post last week,

This is a new front in the war over holy places that the Palestinians are trying to ignite as part of their propaganda campaign against Israel and the history of the Jewish people.”

But, while it doesn’t have the same holy status at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and thus doesn’t seem to be generating the same level of outrage, in some respects the PA’s latest request is even more harmful that its prior UNESCO resolutions involving Jerusalem.

Inscribing Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and its Old City to the Palestinians would be highly “problematic diplomatically” because the area is under Israeli control based on the 1997 Hebron Protocol signed by the PA and Israel. Further, registering a site jointly used by Israelis and Palestinians to the PA will effectively render the Oslo Accords null and void, and will “only end up deepening the conflict.”

But here’s what’s even worse about this latest battle at UNESCO over Jewish holy sites: if the 21-member committee approves the PA’s call to place Hebron on the danger list, it will “mark the first time” that Jewish sacred space under Israeli control is registered to the Palestinian Authority and the “State of Palestine”.

That would be a very big deal.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman