Israel angered by UNESCO due to its fear of history
Jericho does not belong to the Palestinians alone. It belongs to the whole of humanity. For Israel, however, last week’s recognition by UNESCO of Jericho as a “World Heritage Site in Palestine” complicates its mission of erasing Palestine, physically and figuratively, from existence.
The decision was described by Israel’s foreign ministry as a “cynical” ploy by the Palestinians to politicize UNESCO. This is ironic, as Israel has long politicized history by removing anything that could be interpreted as being part of Palestinian heritage, while elevating a self-centered and largely fabricated view of history that supposedly belongs to Israel alone.
Though Israel has succeeded, thanks to its massive military power, in dominating the Palestinian physical landscape, it has largely failed to dominate Palestine’s history. Apartheid walls, military checkpoints and illegal Jewish-only settlements are easy to construct. Constructing and sustaining a historical narrative that is dotted with lies, half-truths and omissions, however, is almost impossible.
All of this is part of a protracted Israeli-US war on UNESCO. In 2019, the US and Israel officially withdrew from the organization, citing anti-Israel bias. This followed repeated threats by various US administrations and a cut in funding by the Obama administration in 2011.
But why launch such a fierce and determined war against an organization that describes itself as a promoter of “peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture?” In fact, among all UN-linked international institutions, UNESCO is one of the least politicized, as it is based on the belief that the past — and whatever remains of it — is a common heritage that belongs to all of us. As acceptable as such a claim may be for most countries around the world, UNESCO’s innocuous gestures to the Palestinians are, for Israel, simply heretical.
Israel has long politicized history by removing anything that could be interpreted as being part of Palestinian heritage
Not only do Jericho and Tell Es-Sultan belong on the list of World Heritage Sites, but the two should actually top the list. This is not grandstanding or another “cynical” utilization of history, but simply due to the fact Jericho is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and Tell Es-Sultan is the oldest town in the world, as it dates back to the 10th millennium B.C.
For example, Tel Es-Sultan’s pre-pottery Neolithic-era tower, built circa 8,300 B.C., is believed to have been used to mark the summer solstice. It was, for nearly 6,000 years, the tallest human-made structure in the world. This is just one of numerous astonishing facts about Tell Es-Sultan.
All of Palestine is rich with such history, tracing our common ancestry to ancient civilizations that have merged or fused into other cultures, giving us the fascinating tapestry that is humanity.
And because the history of Palestine is the history of humankind, serious Palestinian historians, archeologists and intellectuals rarely display any ethnocentric ownership over that history, thus refusing to claim any ascendency over other cultures. “All archeological and historical evidence shows that Palestine was inhabited by many people,” wrote respected Palestinian archeologist Dr. Hamdan Taha in the recently published volume “Our Vision for Liberation.”
Palestinian history spans a period from “the early times of Homo sapiens until the 21st century and, over this history, marked by many wars, invasions and conversions ... the Indigenous population was never completely eliminated,” Taha wrote. A careful reading of Taha’s comments is enough to explain Israel’s fears, bordering on panic, whenever Palestine and the Palestinians are linked to a credible historical narrative.
Two points are worth a pause. One is that all the “wars, invasions and conversions” did not succeed in interrupting the demographic flow and continuity of the “Indigenous people” of Palestine, culminating in today’s modern Palestinians. And secondly, those Indigenous people were “never completely eliminated,” though some invaders tried in vain to achieve this.
Israel has done more than merely attempt to rewrite history and marginalize the main actors of Palestine’s historical narrative. It has also actively and continuously tried to eliminate the natives altogether.
Several generations of Palestinian archeologists have helped reanimate much of Palestine’s history, both ancient and modern
But it has failed. The number of Palestinians living in historic Palestine today at least equals, and according to some estimates is even higher than, the number of Israeli Jewish immigrants from Europe and elsewhere.
Failing at the “elimination” part of history, Israel is now resorting to the two-pronged strategy of ethnic cleansing and racial separation, or apartheid. This practice is now increasingly recognized by international human rights groups, including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others.
The ghosts of the past are another problem facing Israel. A brilliant cadre of Palestinian historians and archeologists, like Taha, joined by courageous and equally brilliant Israeli historians, including Ilan Pappe, are determined to unearth the truth about Palestine’s history and Israel’s meddling in it. It is because of such respected individuals that a parallel history to the one invented by Israel following the Nakba has emerged.
Another “tell” — the Arabic word for hill — aside from Tell Es-Sultan was recently unearthed. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported earlier this month that the excavation of Tell Qedesh was a “first-of-its-kind project” uncovering a not-so-distant past. In this Palestinian village near the Lebanese border, war crimes were committed and hapless villagers, after doing their best to resist Zionist militias, were forced to flee. To ensure the villagers never returned, Israeli authorities bulldozed it entirely.
“The dig is the first in Israel specifically dedicated to archaeologically exploring the legacy of what Palestinians remember as the Nakba,” Haaretz wrote.
For decades, Palestinians have been doing exactly that. Several generations of Palestinian archeologists have helped reanimate much of Palestine’s history, both ancient and modern. “The rule of archeology is to reconstruct the past in order to build the future,” according to Taha.
Unlike Israel, however, Taha’s vision aims to “incorporate the voices of all peoples, groups, cultures and religions that have lived on the land of Palestine.” This inclusive vision is directly at odds with Israel’s exclusivist, selective and often fabricated “vision,” which is predicated on military domination and cultural erasure.
In its World Heritage Committee session in Riyadh last week, UNESCO confirmed the validity of the Palestinian vision. Naturally, Israel is angry because invaders hate the truth.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. X: @RamzyBaroud