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US ambassador to UN slams efforts to list Ibrahimi Mosque UNESCO endangered site

July 4, 2017 5:54 P.M. (Updated: July 4, 2017 8:49 P.M.)
Photo of Hebron's Old City (MaanImages/File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed late on Monday her opposition to a planned UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) vote over whether to include the Old City of Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque on its World Heritage in Danger list.

UNESCO is scheduled to decide on the status of Hebron’s Old City on July 7 or 8 during an ongoing conference in Krakow, Poland. The vote is also expected to include a clause rejecting Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980 in a move never recognized by the international community.

While Palestinian authorities have planned to introduce the site for consideration on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for years, they decided to fast track the site’s application owing to routine Israeli violence in the Old City, which Palestinians have claimed threatens the integrity of the Ibrahimi Mosque, and instead propose the area as an endangered site.

The request to include the sites on the list was filed by the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Tourism, Hebron municipality and Hebron rehabilitation committee, arguing that Hebron's Old City urgently needed protection from "assaults that harm the exceptional international value of the place," according to a statement from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism on Monday.

Hebron’s Old City, which is under full Israeli military control, is home to some 30,000 Palestinians and around 800 Israeli settlers who live under the protection of Israeli forces.

The official Palestinian statement quoted Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maaya as saying that World Heritage status would help maintain the Palestinian identity of the Ibrahimi Mosque and protect it from "ongoing Israeli attacks and attempts to Judaize the place."

Haley, who has repeatedly accused the UN of “bullying” Israel by focusing on its violations of international law, insisted in a statement sent to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the Ibrahimi Mosque -- also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs -- was not imperiled.

“The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is sacred to three faiths, is under no immediate threat,” Haley said. “Such a designation risks undermining the seriousness such an assessment by UNESCO should have.”

She further urged UNESCO to not “waste” its time “on this sort of symbolic action,” and to focus instead on other sites in war-torn countries such as Syria.

Haley went on to imply that the “particularly ill-timed and unfortunate” push for the UNESCO vote could negatively affect American President Donald Trump’s efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Both Israel and Trump’s administration have regularly criticized the UN for what they deem is the unfair targeting of Israel over its breaches of international law, particularly its illegal settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli authorities have meanwhile reportedly been scrambling in recent weeks to collect seven votes needed to block the Hebron motion.

The Ibrahimi Mosque, where the Prophet Abraham is believed to be buried, has been a focal point of such violence for decades, as the site is holy to both Muslims and Jews and has been a prime site for Israeli settler activities in the area.

The holy site was split into a synagogue and a mosque after US-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians inside the mosque in 1994. Since the split, Muslim worshipers have been denied access to the site during Jewish holidays and vice versa in effort to prevent violence from erupting.

Located in the center of Hebron -- one of the largest cities in the occupied West Bank -- the Old City was also divided into Palestinian and Israeli-controlled areas at the time, known as H1 and H2.

Israeli authorities refused to grant entry visas to a UNESCO investigative team scheduled to conduct a field visit to Hebron in June to assess whether or not the Old City was actually endangered.

Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen reportedly said at the time that the UNESCO group was being rejected entry into Israel owing to the fact that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a body that provides recommendations to UNESCO involving sites that could be considered on the World Heritage in Danger list, had advised against considering previous sites in the occupied Palestinian territory as endangered.

UNESCO, however, had rejected ICOMOS’ recommendations when deciding to include the Church of Nativity and Battir terraces to the World Heritage in Danger list in 2012 and 2014.

In October 2016, UNESCO officially adopted a resolution criticizing Israeli policies around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, the Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque -- also known as Rachel’s Tomb -- in Bethlehem.

The resolution nonetheless highlighted the significance of the holy sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem for all three monotheistic religions -- Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
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