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Palestine drops bid to register new UNESCO heritage site

June 16, 2013 12:03 A.M. (Updated: July 1, 2013 6:00 P.M.)
By Ammar Owaineh and George Hale

BATTIR, West Bank (Ma’an) -- Palestine is backing down from plans to ask UNESCO to place an ancient West Bank village on its World Heritage in Danger list, a year after the UN scientific and cultural agency voted to include Bethlehem’s Nativity Church.

Residents of Battir, southwest of Jerusalem, which is home to an ancient Roman irrigation network in continuous use for centuries, expected the Palestinian delegation to nominate the farming village for inclusion on UNESCO’s rosters during its annual convention, which opens Sunday in Cambodia.

Experts in Battir and Bethlehem who helped draft the application told Ma’an that the Palestinian delegation in Paris received a completed file in January. It should have submitted it by a February deadline but did not, the officials said. This is because in early 2013, Palestinian and Israeli officials worked out an informal agreement to freeze the nomination, a PLO official with knowledge of the decision said.

In return, the Israeli government indicated it would permit the UN agency to send an investigative team to Jerusalem, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive negotiations with Israel.

“All the paperwork was ready for the Battir application ... It was stopped in exchange for the delegation to Jerusalem,” the official explained.

Israel ended up reneging on the deal weeks after the deadline to submit Battir had passed.

“What we did was bad. It was a really big mistake ... They were never going to allow UN investigators into their ‘undivided, eternal capital,’” the official added, referring to Israel's vision for Jerusalem. Israel occupied the city after a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move never recognized abroad.

Israeli officials say they were unaware of the change of plans and denied that delaying or canceling the vote at UNESCO was part of the deal to bring the delegation to Jerusalem.

“This comes as a surprise,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. “I really can’t think about why they would do that. They did seem very keen on pushing that forward.”

Palmor told Ma'an late Saturday that the informal deal to bring the UNESCO delegation to Jerusalem included shelving five pro-Palestinian resolutions at the UN, but not Battir’s UNESCO application. “As far as I know, the concrete measure was (only) to freeze a number of resolutions.”

Israel announced approval in April of a UNESCO monitoring visit to Jerusalem, the first since 2004. It followed demands from Jordan, which has historically administered Muslim and Christian holy sites in the city. In May, however, Israel said it was no longer cooperating because the Palestinians "politicized" the visit.

'Missing a great chance'

The decision to put off the nomination angered Palestinian experts and local officials who had selected Battir based on imminent threats they said its cultural sites faced from Israel’s wall.

The Battir municipality is locked in a court battle with the Israeli army to re-route the barrier, and they hoped the global attention from a successful vote might even the playing field.

“Palestine is missing a great chance by not submitting the file,” according to Battir mayor Akram Bader. “We are in court against the wall.”

Bader said the Palestinian leadership neglected an opportunity to offer "protection against Israeli violations" as well as boost the economic, cultural and historical value of the village.

UNESCO's 21-member World Heritage committee meets once a year to discuss the management of existing heritage sites and to consider nominations for new ones. It was at this conference in June 2012 that the agency narrowly voted to accept Palestine's first submission, the Nativity Church, over the objections of Israel and the United States. Palestinian officials said they would submit Battir in 2013.

The village sits upon the slopes of two rocky, green hills where its farmers still use a 2,000-year-old Roman irrigation system that runs down the sides of both hills.

Battir's lands are uniquely within all three designations of a 1995 agreement with Israel, divided into areas "A," "B," and "C,". If Israel's plans go forward, the wall will section off some 30 percent of areas "B" and "C," lands which contain most of the village's vital farmlands, officials say.

Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, a cultural programs specialist for UNESCO, called the Palestinian Authority's decision "very inexplicable" and charged that it could "jeopardize the site forever."

Antonelli, who helped prepare the application in December and January, said that UNESCO's recognition would have made it "more difficult for Israel to grab that land."

He also said it would have become a natural tourism destination. "People in Battir (could) start to have small businesses there instead of migrating," he said.

Nada Atrash, head of research and development at the Cultural Heritage Preservation Center in Bethlehem, agreed that the nomination "would help Palestine but at the same time add to its responsibilities."

Atrash, who was also involved in preparing the application, says the nomination "will not stop vandalism" because UNESCO can only issue statements and condemnations.

She said it was up to the Palestinian people to protect their land, but she hoped the Palestinian leadership would reconsider the application.

Calls to Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, were not immediately returned. Nor did Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, respond to inquiries Saturday.

Palestine's delegation to UNESCO did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone and email. Aides to ambassador Elias Sambar refused to make him available for interview.
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