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Israel refuses entry to UNESCO group expected to visit Hebron's Old City

June 26, 2017 6:15 P.M. (Updated: June 27, 2017 11:38 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli authorities have refused to grant entry visas for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) investigative team scheduled to conduct a field visit to the Old City in the southern occupied West Bank district of Hebron in advance of an upcoming vote next month to consider the area an endangered world heritage site, Israeli media reported on Sunday.

While Palestinian authorities had planned to introduce the site for consideration on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for 2018, 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 site, and instead propose the area as an endangered site.

A Palestinian delegation to UNESCO had reportedly expressed the “alarming details about the Israeli violations in Al-Khalil/ Hebron, including the continuous acts of vandalism, property damage, and other attacks,” in a letter to the World Heritage Center.

Since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967 and began advancing Israeli settlements across Palestinian territory in violation of international law, Hebron has been a flashpoint for Israeli settler violence on Palestinians and their properties.

The Ibrahimi Mosque, known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the Old City 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 UNESCO team’s visit is aimed at assessing whether or not the Old City of Hebron is actually endangered, and would submit these findings to 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.

According to The Jerusalem Post, other protected sites in the occupied Palestinian territory, including the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the ancient terraces of Battir, and the pilgrimage route in Bethlehem, had also been fast tracked by Palestinian authorities in previous years to include them on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list.

Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen reportedly said that the UNESCO group was being rejected entry into Israel owing to the fact that ICOMOS had advised against considering the previous sites in the occupied territory as endangered and instead recommended that Palestinian authorities continue with the normal process.

UNESCO, however, had rejected these recommendations by ICOMOS for the Church of Nativity and Battir. Hacohen said that due to these past decisions by UNESCO to ignore recommendations made by ICOMOS, it would be “a shame to waste the time and money” of the committee.

He went on to denounce what he considered “Palestinian political moves under the guise of culture and heritage,” and added that UNESCO’s consideration of the site represented “lies that plot against the state of Israel as well as the history and the connection of the Jewish people to this important holy site.”

The 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.

UNESCO is scheduled to decide on the status of the Old City during a conference in Krakow, Poland from July 2-12. The vote is 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.

Meanwhile, Israeli media site Ynet reported that Israeli authorities have been scrambling to collect the seven votes needed to block the motion.

Ynet also said that in the “context of a peace process,” the inclusion of Hebron’s Old City into UNESCO’s World Heritage List would “impose limits on Israeli construction, the protection and development of the site and on specific areas in the vicinity,” and expressed worry that Israel would “be condemned each time it erects a security checkpoint or conducts work in the area on the grounds that is is damaging a world heritage site.”

However, Israeli activities in Hebron and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory have long been condemned by rights groups and the international community as human rights abuses against the Palestinian people and a threat to any future peace agreements, while the some 500,000 to 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank are residing there in contravention of international law.

Israel has repeatedly accused the United Nations and its respective bodies of being “anti-Israel” for its stances against the now half-century occupation of the Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

Such allegations have escalated following the passing of UN Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlement building in Palestinian territory. The US, during the final days of the Barack Obama administration, had taken Israel by surprise by abstaining from the vote and allowing it to pass, in a split from its typical objections to such moves by use of its veto power at the the Security Council.

Earlier this month, Donald Trump-appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the UN could no longer “bully” Israel over its violations of international law, and said that “we are not going to let that happen anymore.”

Trump himself denounced the UN resolution, and even warned in a Twitter post last year that “things will be different” vis a vis American policies toward Israel following his inauguration.
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