The Case of Hebron and Bethlehem

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United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Executive Board 184th Session, Paris, 19 March 2010,

Item 37 of the Provisional Agenda:

The Two Palestinian Sites of Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem

Summary

This item has been included in the provisional agenda of the 184th session of the Executive Board at the request of Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait,  Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic and Tunisia. The explanatory note prepared by these Member States is attached.  A draft decision is to follow.

Explanatory Note

Fact sheet on Israeli consolidation of Palestinian Heritage sites in the Occupied Palestinian Territory:

The Case of Hebron and Bethlehem

Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, hundreds of Palestinian archaeological sites and cultural property have been systematically confiscated, looted and excavated by Israeli authorities, endangering Palestinian cultural heritage and denying Palestinians their cultural patrimony, as well as denying development and access to heritage sites and historic places of worship.

Earlier this week the Israeli Prime Minister announced plans to further consolidate control over Palestinian archaeology  and heritage areas in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Hebron’s 1,000-year old Haram Al-Ibrahimi (Sanctuary of Abraham or Tomb of the Patriarchs Mosque of Ibrihim in Hebron), and historic Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque (Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem) by provocatively declaring them part of Israel’s national heritage sites.

Located in the old town of Hebron in the southern part of the West Bank, the Haram Al-Ibrahimi is venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews as the burial place for the Biblical figures Abraham (Ibrahim) and Sarah, Isaac (Ishaq) and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.  Located in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, Rachel’s tomb is considered the traditional gravesite of the Biblical Matriarch Rachel and is home to the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque.  These Palestinian sites are cultural treasures that the Palestinian people wish to protect and share with the world.  In  fact, the Haram Al-Ibrahimi, along with other sites such as the Dead Sea Scroll sites in Qumran and Bethlehem’s church of the Nativity, have been listed on the Inventory of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of Outstanding Universal Value since 2005 as a precursor to Palestine’s submission to UNESCO for recognition as World Heritage sites.

These cultural treasures are special to all humanity in addition to the religious significance ascribed to them by people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions.  Since Israel’s occupation, the Israeli Government has attempted to highlight the Jewish character of archaeological and heritage sites in the occupied Palestinian territory, while erasing or neglecting the universal character of these heritage sites and denying access to all people of faith.  This Israeli policy has been used as a political tool to maintain and entrench control over Palestinian lands and resources and as a pretext for its continued settlement activity in contravention of international law.  In fact, much of the settlement enterprise is concentrated around archaeological areas where Israel makes claims of exclusive heritage, including the settlements of Shiloh, Bet El and Kiryat Arba.

As part of the illegal settlement enterprise, the Israeli authorities also exploit Palestinian heritage sites for financial and political gains.  Under the Netanyahu administration, Israel has publicly begun to use these sacred and universal sites to provoke unnecessary religious conflict by promoting control and access on the exclusive basis of one faith while denying the rights and views of other faiths.

Applicable laws and obligations

Israel’s status in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, remains that of an occupying power with specific obligations to the local population.  Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory is inherently temporary and does not give the occupying power (Israel) sovereignty or title over the occupied territory.  The seminal principle in international law is reflected in Article 43 of the Hague Regulations which requires the occupying power to re-establish and maintain public order and civil life for the benefit of the occupied population, and to respect existing laws and institutions in the occupied territory.  The only exception to this is military necessity, which is to be narrowly construed.  Therefore,  Israel cannot act for its own population’s economic or social benefit to the detriment of the Palestinians.

More recent interpretations of the Hague Regulations permit changes to the local law by the occupying power if it is essential for (1) implementation of international human rights law, (2) for the purpose of enhancing civil life during long-lasting occupations, or (3) where explicitly authorized by United Nations Security Council resolutions.  None of these exceptions are invoked as part of the settlement work at Palestinian heritage sites in the West Bank.

These obligations and commitments are also found in UNESCO agreements such as the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970).  For example, Article 4 and 5 of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict require Israel (which is a signatory to the convention) to respect and protect cultural property in the occupied territory and refrain from all activity in the site with the exception of “military necessity.”

In addition, under interim agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (known as the Oslo Accords), Israel is obligated to cooperate and notify the joint Israeli-Palestinian committee of any changes or developments to Palestinian heritage sites.  These obligations have not been met by Israel.

Confiscation and developments of Palestinian heritage sites and cultural property by Israel is prohibited by international law and UNESCO conventions and protocols, including several that Israel has signed.  Thus, Israel is directly violating its international commitments, which prohibit it from unilaterally developing and promoting Palestinian sites.  In addition, it continues to deny Palestinians access and use of their historic places of worship and cultural heritage  properties.  The illegal activities and development of the sites, along with revenues Israel generates, are part and parcel of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.

Harmful to the peace process

The Israeli cabinet’s unilateral decision to continue with their consolidation of Palestinian heritage and archaeological sites under Israeli control reinforces Palestinian concerns that there is currently no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on its illegal confiscation of Palestinian territory and resources.  While the international community struggles to end Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise and restart negotiations, the Netanyahu administration is actively working to undermine those efforts and to sabotage the two-state solution.  Control over archaeological and tourist sites are part of the continuing illegal Israeli settlement enterprise.  It is only through a complete cessation of these activities and restoration of control and access to Palestinians in line with international laws, that Israel can begin to repair the foundations needed for peaceful and neighborly relations between the two States.

The 185th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Executive Board adopted five decisions concerning UNESCO’s work in the occupied Palestinian and Arab Territories.

The decision cover:

  • The Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem:  the Board voted 31 to 5 (17 abstentions) to reaffirm the necessity of Israel’s cooperation in order to arrange access to the Mughrabi Ascent site for Jordanian and Waqf experts and that no measures should be taken which will effect the authenticity and integrity of the site, in accordance with the Convention for Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
  • Jerusalem’s Cultural Heritage:  The Board voted 34 to 1 (19 abstentions) to “reaffirm the religious significance of  the Old City of Jerusalem for Muslims, Christians and Jews.  The decision expresses “deep concern over the ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, which contradicts UNESCO decisions and conventions and United Nations and Security Council resolutions”.  It invites the Director-General to appoint experts to be stationed in East Jerusalem to report on all aspects covering the architectural, educational, cultural and demographical situation there.  It also invites the Israelis to facilitate the work of the experts  in conformity with Israel’s adherence  to UNESCO decisions and conventions.
  • The Palestinian sites of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/ Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachael’s Tomb in Bethlehem:  The Board voted 44 to 1 (12 abstentions) to reaffirm the sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions. 
  • Educational and Cultural Institutions in the Occupied Arab Territories:  The Board voted 41 to 1 (15 abstentions) expressing its “continuing concern” about the harmful impact of the Separation Wall and  other practices on the activities of cultural and educational institutions, as well as obstacles that result which prevent Palestinian school children and students from being an integral part of their social fabric and from exercising their full right to education.  The decision calls on the Director-General to continue efforts to preserve the human, social and cultural fabric of the occupied Syrian Golan, and to undertake efforts to offer appropriate curricula and provide more grants and adequate assistance to the education and cultural institutions of the occupied Syrian Golan.
  • The Reconstruction and Development of Gaza:  The Board voted 41 to 1 (15 abstentions) on a decision that “deplores” the continuous blockade on the Gaza Strip, which harmfully affects the free and sustained movement of personnel and  humanitarian relief items”.  The decision called upon the Director-General of UNESCO to continue contributing to the United Nations humanitarian response in Gaza within the Organization’s fields of competence.

UNESCO’s Executive Board comprises 58 Member States.  It meets twice a year to review the implementation of the programme adopted by the General Conference.  The 185th session of the Board opened on 5 October 2010 and close on 21 October 2010.

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