UNESCO-Israel War of Words Over Decision to Label Hebron a Palestinian Heritage Site

UNESCO has designated the West Bank city of Hebron as an endangered Palestinian heritage site, drawing the ire of Israel, which branded the move "shameful" and renewed calls for President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. membership of the United Nations body.

The secret vote in the Polish city of Krakow saw the Palestinian proposal pass 12 to 3 with six abstentions. Israel, which maintains a military occupation of the city, said the wording did not give enough prominence to Jewish history in Hebron.

Hebron is the only city in the West Bank to have Israeli settlements at its heart, where a few hundred settlers live surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. It is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, believed to be burial place of Abraham and referred to by Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the Old City, where many Palestinian homes and businesses have been shuttered by the Israelis since the early 2000s.  

Both the Old City and the mosque will now be added to UNESCO's World Heritage List and the World Heritage Committee will gather every year to discuss their status.

The Palestinians hailed UNESCO's decision as a boost for their strategy of a "diplomatic Intifada," or uprising, persuading the international community that the Palestinians require their own sovereign state in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

"We used our rights as Palestinians. We decided not to go for violence, we decided to go only for political and diplomatic means," Majdi Khaldi, adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tells Newsweek by phone. "These are the tools and the means that we can use to practice our rights and to protect the rights of our people."

But for Israelis, the decision is one that favors Arab claims to the city over those of Jews. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that "Jewish ties to Hebron are stronger than the disgraceful UNESCO vote," while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement, called the decision "shameful."

Hebron's contested holy site An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man walks outside the Patriarchs' Tomb, known in Arabic as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in the the divided West Bank city of Hebron on May 29, 2017. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

The religious site, beside the contest over its history, is known for an infamous shooting in 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, a far-right member of the now-banned Kach movement. As Palestinians gathered to pray, Goldstein opened fire inside the compound, killing 29 people including children. Survivors beat him to death after being overpowered.

Both the U.S. and Israel had lobbied the U.N. to cancel the vote. U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had sent a letter to U.N. officials, head of UNESCO Irini Bokova and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling on them to oppose the move. 

Israeli officials, such as Michael Oren, deputy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, have called on the Trump administration to leave UNESCO completely, and members of the Jewish community in Hebron reiterated that demand of Israel's historic ally on Friday.

"We are calling on the international community and the Trump administration t0 pull out of UNESCO completely. Thereby telling the U.N. that the United States do not want this international body to be hijacked by the Palestinians," Yishai Fleischer, international spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron, tells Newsweek by phone.

"They have taken one of the foundational landmarks of Jewish history and have appropriated it as their own," he adds. "We intend on making sure that Hebron remains Jewish."