Dozens of times over the last 25 years, I have trekked the old town of the magnificent city of Hebron. Few cities teem with such history. How many can claim to host the burial sites of such biblical giants as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Hebron has everything but for recognition in the wider world.
The decision by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on July 7 to list Hebron as a World Heritage Site is a giant step in the right direction, following the same status given to the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem and the awe-inspiring terraces at nearby Battir. Many other worthy sites such as Jericho are on the tentative list.
All this should in theory be part of the fruits of recognition of Palestine as a state, and its subsequent ability to sign up to UNESCO in 2011 as a full member. Hebron is undoubtedly in occupied Palestinian territory, with a Palestinian population of more than 200,000. It is the beating heart of the southern West Bank, politically, socially and economically. Until otherwise agreed in fair negotiations, it should be registered as part of that state.
So why all the fuss from Israel and, as ever, the US? Reading the text of the resolution — one suspects many Israeli politicians did not even bother to — there is simply no denial of Jewish historic or religious links to the city, nor indeed Christian or Muslim.
Explosions of outrage are a specialty of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a firm believer that if you want to complain, it has to be full-throttle, so for him it was “another delusional UNESCO decision.”
Netanyahu had only just cooled down from his salvo of blasts at UNESCO over Jerusalem. As ever, he was guilty of wilfully ignoring the clear statement in the resolution that recognized “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.”
Netanyahu read out the relevant passage from Genesis about how Abraham purchased the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. UNESCO does not comment on the religious links to sites, so all this is just grandstanding. Religious texts cannot and should not be used as a modern-day title deed. Netanyahu is doing precisely what he accuses Palestinians of doing: Fanning the flames of anger with fake news.
But it was not just he and the even wilder ministers to the right of him, such as Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who worked up a storm of rage. Even Israel’s centrist and left-leaning politicians tried to get in on the act.
Explosions of outrage are a specialty of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a firm believer that if you want to complain, it has to be full-throttle, so for him it was ‘another delusional UNESCO decision.’
That Hebron is Palestinian does not sever the Jewish link any more than Nazareth being in Israel means the Christian link is cut. Sites important to Jews and Judaism exist worldwide, such as Al-Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia, but this does not mean Israel has a sovereign claim to them. Hebron has Jewish links and history; nobody at UNESCO is saying otherwise.
Trashing the UN plays well in Israel and the US. It makes political sense for a leader under pressure, as Netanyahu is. The insulting treatment of the UN is why UNESCO was not even able to conduct a site visit. Israel has slashed a further $1 million from its UN funding, meaning over the last year its funding of the body that created it has fallen from $11 million to a mere $1.7 million.
It serves to hide the real questions that the international community ignores over Hebron and why Netanyahu is really upset. Why are Israeli forces and settlers in Hebron at all? The settlements inside and outside the Old City are illegal. Israel’s military presence is there only to protect them. Palestinians cannot freely drive or walk in their own city. There are areas where Palestinian presence is forbidden, yet Israeli and international citizens are free to go.
Israel claims it guarantees freedom of worship at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which it does up to a point. But it decides who can go into the West Bank, banning many people, and it decides when to open or close the mosque. The old city is a ghost town. It is divided and blockaded. Ancient markets have been closed down, and Palestinian shop doors in the old city welded shut. Of all the historic cities in the world still standing, this must be the most deserted.
What irks Netanyahu is that the UN is accepting that Palestinians have national rights, another example of how little he supports a two-state solution. The international community limply backs off when confronted with Israeli anger. UNESCO will not be able to monitor Hebron’s sites or send missions there, nor will Israel do what it should and withdraw from the city. Leaders in the US, Europe and elsewhere must start tackling Israeli bullying.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.