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Jewish settlers declare culture war on Unesco Hebron decision

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Palestinians walk outside al-Ibrahimi mosque, which Jews call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron July 7, 2017. Reuters/Ammar Awad

Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron have vowed to wage a cultural war against Unesco after it declared Hebron's Old City a Palestinian world heritage site and put it on its in-danger list.


The Unesco decision was aimed at protecting Palestinian heritage from attacks by settlers, instead it has sparked a culture war.

"I call it national identity theft," Yishai Fleisher, the head of Hebron's Jewish settler community told RFI.

"The real rationale for this Unesco vote was not in fact to protect Hebron but to delegitimise Jewish presence in this ancient city where we've been living for about 3,800 years."

Twelve countries on the world heritage committee voted in favour of the Palestinian request to name Hebron a heritage site, while three voted against. Six abstained.

"It's a small component in the larger war of consciousness against Jewish presence in the ancestral homeland," adds Fleisher.

The Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories are technically against Israeli law and have been repeatedly condemned by the UN.

The settlers' leaders aim to bring the whole area into the Jewish state, arguing that it was part of biblical Israel.

"We are absolutely intent on securing what we see as a core Jewish heritage site, in terms of its historical value and access," says Fleisher.

However, Palestinian diplomats urged Unesco to fast-track Hebron's heritage status, arguing it was necessary to protect the area around the Ibrahimi Mosque, revered by Muslims but considered by Israelis to be the Tomb of Patriarchs--the burial place of some of Judaism's most revered figures.

Danger debate

"Many of the Palestinian businesses in Hebron have been destroyed" since settlers started moving into the area in large numbers, Ray Hanania, former president of the Palestinian American Congress told RFI, adding that Hebron needs to be on Unesco's in danger list.

Fleisher disagrees. "There's simply nothing in dange", he retorts. "This idea that Hebron and the Old Tomb of Patriarchs is in danger is bogus, quote unquote fake news, given that the way it’s being handled right now is under agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. And Israel does an excellent job in ensuring freedom of access and worship at the site.”

Hanania's view couldn't be more different.

"Of course if you're a Jewish settler there's no danger," he comments. "You're protected by the Israeli military. If you're Christian or Muslim, there are streets you can't walk down."

Palestinian identity

For Hanania it's Israel that is denying the Christian and Muslim heritage of this religiously charged city.

"The Israelis don't allow anything to identify with Palestinians, they do everything they can to prevent the Palestinians from having an identity. And I think it's actually settler extremism that's fuelling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he claims.

Hanania visited Hebron in 1995 following the murder of 29 Palestinian Muslims by Israeli-American right-winger Baruch Goldstein.

"They don't want anybody to see what's going on," he comments. "The Western media won't go there, which is why I went there and it was one of the ugliest things I have ever seen. They literally hated me and it didn't matter that I had an American passport."

The controversy surrounding Hebron is just the latest in an ongoing standoff between the UN's cultural body and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unesco's vote to make Palestine a full member in 2011 already angered Israel, which has occupied the area since the Six Day War of 1967. And last year it again found itself in the Jewish state's crosshairs when it listed Jerusalem as a Palestinian heritage site.

Unesco under fire

"Who is Unesco by the way to decide which site should be protected?" asks Fleisher, who points to the fact that Unesco now has several Arab countries seated on its board.

"It's blatant to us that it's an attempt to hit a key site to our narrative and our connection to this place."

Last October Unesco passed two separate resolutions ignoring Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

But for Hanania the world should be shocked by what Israeli policy is doing to Hebron: "No one is able to monitor what the Israelis have done to the Ibrahimi Mosque. Now Abraham isn't Jewish he was Hebrew, biblical Hebrew. He's significant to Christians and to Muslims."

Fleisher however insists that "the Jewish community in Hebron will seek to gain more rights to build homes for their children, museums explaining their story to make it clear that this is indeed a natural heritage site of Israel.

"It's a war and Unesco are combatants in it."