Last Friday at the 36th meeting of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee, held in St. Petersburg, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as an endangered heritage site, registered under the location “Palestine.”
You may be thinking “Another pro-Palestinian vote at the UN, so what else is new?” But the baffling and telling part of the story is not simply that the motion passed, but that it passed despite the better judgment of UNESCO’s own advisory body and secretariat, and even against the wishes of the church’s own custodians. This story is perhaps the perfect illustration of Abba Eban‘s famous claim that “If [the Arab states] introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13, with 26 abstentions”
The decision to include the ancient church on the list, as the first Palestinian World Heritage site, was made by a secret vote among UN World Heritage Committee members, which ended in a 13-6 majority (with two abstentions). A two-thirds majority was required for the vote to pass. According to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor Algeria, France, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates voted in favour of the motion, while Ethiopia, Japan, Switzerland, Estonia, Colombia and Germany opposed it, and Cambodia and Thailand abstained. While there are a total of 911 sites that hold World Heritage status, the Bethlehem church became the 38th site listed as “endangered.”
After UNESCO accepted “Palestine” as its 195th member state, despite it not being a member state of the UN, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was granted full state rights in all UNESCO-related bodies, such as the World Heritage Centre. The PA then decided to request that the Church of the Nativity be considered an endangered heritage site under an emergency procedure, claiming it is in need of urgent repairs and that it is under immediate danger due to the Israeli “occupation.” In its application, the PA argued that “The combined effects of the consequences of the Israeli occupation and the lack of scientific and technical measures for restoring and preserving the property are creating an emergency situation that should be addressed by an emergency measure.” The PA also claimed that the church, which is considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus, requires emergency repairs to prevent the site from collapsing and blamed Israel for imposing limits on free movement that have undercut efforts to import basic supplies to maintain the building.
The Palestinian attempt to place all blame and responsibility for the church’s ’emergency state’ on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is astonishing, since Israel itself in fact supports registering the church as a World Heritage site, and would have pursued doing so as an Israeli-Palestinian joint endeavour. Israel does, however, oppose registration of the site using the emergency procedure, under “Palestine”, until a Palestinian state is established as part of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So far this story is following a well-known pattern: the Palestinians submit a motion to a UN agency in an attempt to unilaterally gain diplomatic power and state-like privileges, and Israel opposes it while arguing that unilateral steps are unhelpful for the resolution of the conflict. Only this time something unusual happened – major stakeholders actually oppose the Palestinian bid, most importantly the religious custodians of the church and UNESCO’s own professional bodies.
All three of the church’s custodians; the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarch, in a most unusual act of cooperation, wrote to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and expressed their opinion that the motion to UNESCO should be withdrawn:
“Allow us first to express our appreciation for the manner by which you considered the possibility of the inclusion of the Basilica of the Nativity in the World Heritage List of UNESCO… In our opinion, we do not think it opportune to deal with this request that the Basilica and its entire complex be included in the list of World Heritage sites, due to different considerations the minor of which is that the operating conditions required by the statues of UNESCO, necessary to include it, do not exist. Thus we hereby reserve our decision on this matter.”
Even more astonishing, in a UN bureaucracy where pro-Palestinian advocacy has been institutionally built into numerous bodies and departments, both the Word Heritage Committee Secretariat and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the Committee’s expert advisory body, recommended that the PA bid be rejected. Both found that the church does not qualify for emergency consideration, which requires that the site be under urgent threat, which the Church manifestly is not. And still, 13 of the 21 member states of the World Heritage Committee chose to ignore the committee bodies’ own advice.
In a heartening sign that non-political expertise still exists within the UN, ICOMOS, which is tasked with evaluating sites for UNESCO, delivered a negative report concluding that the PA had not carried out a full survey of threats to the church. It also dismissed some of the claims made in the Palestinian submission and concluded that the site’s condition does not require emergency care. It also cited unregulated tourism, excessive development, and the lack of cooperation between the three religious custodians in developing a conservation plan as the most serious threats to the preservation of the site. Obviously, none of these threats have anything to do with the “Israeli occupation.”
ICOMOS recommended that the Palestinians withdraw their request for recognition through the emergency procedure, and instead opt for a regular request for Heritage Site status, which should be accompanied by a more detailed plan for preservation and maintenance of the site. It also recommended that UNESCO’s decision in the matter be postponed in the meantime.
The World Heritage Secretariat reached a similar resolution on the matter, as it suggested that the Palestinians should “resubmit the nomination in accordance with normal procedures for nomination, to allow a proper assessment of integrity, authenticity and conservation, and proper consideration of management arrangements and appropriate boundaries for the property.”
Predictably, these recommendations were rejected by the Palestinians. The PA Ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar said the report on the Church of the Nativity was “biased” and “politicised.” Bizarrely, given that this is the UN, he hinted at US and Israeli influence on its conclusions, stating that “those who lost the battle in the vote on Palestine’s admission to UNESCO want to prevent us from exercising our rights.”
Further demonstrating Eban’s dictum, the Palestinians won their vote, celebrating it as a major political victory. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad himself highlighted the connection between the UNESCO vote and the Palestinian political agenda when he stated afterwards that “This gives hope and confidence to our people in the inevitable victory of our just cause… It increases their determination to continue efforts at deepening readiness for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine, with its capital in east Jerusalem, within the 1967 borders.”
Hanan Ashrawi, from the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Executive Committee, also used the occasion to claim victory: “It is a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land, and our commitment to the protection and preservation of such significant Palestinian cultural and religious sites in spite of the Israeli occupation and all its prejudicial measures.”
And, apparently in the grip of a powerful case of projection, she stated that “The message today is that unilateral actions will not work and that Israel cannot continue challenging the world despite its powerful allies.” That’s right. Defying all logic, Ahrawi criticising Israel for “taking unilateral measures” while shielded by “powerful allies” in a case in which the Palestinians themselves relied on “powerful allies” to overcome the opinion of non-political technical experts, to gain support for their own unilateral bid even though it was perfectly possible to gain UNESCO support for a heritage listing for the church with Israel’s cooperation.
Reactions in Israel were, understandably, less enthusiastic. The Prime Minister’s Office accused UNESCO of voting according to political rather than cultural considerations: “Instead of the Palestinians carrying out steps that will advance peace, they take unilateral steps that only push peace further away… The world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christianity, has been desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists [referring to an incident in which Palestinian terrorists held monks and civilians hostage inside the church to avoid being captured by Israeli soldiers during the second Intifada].”
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, also said that the World Heritage Committee made a mistake when it chose to ignore its own advisory bodies. In the past, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has almost always accepted the recommendation of the professional and technical advisory bodies.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor noted that, by choosing the emergency procedure in preference to cooperation with Israel to gain heritage listing, the Palestinians “seem to enslave every possible cause – historical, cultural or economic – to a senseless bashing of Israel,” while politicising UNESCO and turning it “into a propaganda tool against Israel.” He added that “We warned UNESCO members that by granting the Palestinian unilateral recognition as full member-state they will open the door for the Palestinians to hijack UNESCO and divert it from its original mission. Now we see how that warning has materialised.”
Palmor appears to be right. Given the UN’s well-known biases on Israeli-Palestinian issues, it is not very surprising that the UNESCO vote favoured the Palestinian bid. What is amazing is that UNESCO proved that it would so blindly support any motion coming out of the West Bank, that it would do so even against its own secretariat’s advice and the advice of its own professional advisory body – in other words, against its own better judgment. What credibility can an organisation hold if, when it comes to Palestinian bids, it is willing to completely ignore not only expert opinion, but also the will of the local custodians? UNESCO, in first accepting the membership of a Palestinian state which does not yet exist (at considerable financial cost in the form of US$ contributions), and then willingly abandoning any pretence of professionalism in order to support the Palestinian political agenda without reservations, appears to be happy to sacrifice its own international reputation on the altar of Palestine. It is a sad commentary, which also applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to many other UN bodies.