The UN’s world heritage body has recognised the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian world heritage site, sparking outrage from Israel.
Furious efforts by Israel failed to derail the Unesco ruling on the city, which includes a holy site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi mosque and Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Twelve countries on the world heritage committee voted in favour of the Palestinian request to name Hebron a heritage site, while only three voted against it. Six countries abstained.
The ruling also puts Hebron on Unesco’s ‘in danger’ list, which allows for the allocation of immediate World Heritage Fund assistance and is designed to alert the international community to endangered sites.
Unesco will be required to annually evaluate the situation in the old city, where a few hundred Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection in the midst of more than 200,000 Palestinians.
Palestinians have long lived under harsh restrictions in the city, which is one of the starkest symbols of the Israeli occupation.
The Unesco resolution notes Hebron’s claim to be one of the oldest cities in the world, dating from the Chalcolithic period or more than 3,000 years BC and at various times conquered by Romans, Jews, Crusaders and Mamluks.
Jews believe the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs) is where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives are buried. Muslims, who, like Christians, also revere Abraham, built the Ibrahimi mosque, also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham, in the 14th century.
The religious significance of the city has made it a focal point for Israeli settlers, who are determined to expand the Jewish presence there.
The Unseco vote took place at the Unesco annual summit, in Krakow, Poland, on Friday and was held as a secret ballot following a request from Israel, which believed that would mean countries were more likely to support its case.
In heated scenes, Israel’s Unesco ambassador, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, reportedly stormed to the desk of the session’s chairman after the vote, and accused the committee of not conducting a truly secret ballot.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Shama HaCohen took out his mobile phone and scornfully informed the committee: “It’s my plumber in my apartment in Paris. There is a huge problem in my toilet and it is much more important than the decision you just adopted.”
Neftali Bennet, the Israeli education minister, condemned the move. Photograph: EPAThe decision was hailed by Palestinian officials as a diplomatic victory against pressure from Israel and the US to derail the vote.
The Palestinian ambassador to Unesco pointed out that the question of religion had not been part of the so-called ‘inscription’ process.
“Palestine has not inscribed a religion on the world heritage list. Religion cannot be inscribed on such a list,” Elias Sanbar said.
“The Palestinian state is sovereign even though it is under occupation. It is acting within its full rights when it takes the initiative to nominate this city for inscription on the world heritage list. This city which is on its territory.”
The Palestinian foreign ministry hailed the decision as a “success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states”.
“Despite a frantic Israeli campaign spreading lies and distorting the facts about the Palestinian rights, the world has recognised our right to register Hebron and the Ibrahimi mosque under Palestinian sovereignty,” the statement added.
The Israeli charge against the decision was led by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a long-time critic of Unesco.
Netanyahu called it “another delusional Unesco decision” and said Israel would “continue to guard the Cave of the Patriarchs, to ensure religious freedom for everybody and … guard the truth”.
“This time they decided that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning not Jewish, and that it’s in danger. Not a Jewish site? Who’s buried there – Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaa’kov. Sarah, Rivka and Leah. Our fathers and mothers. And the site is in danger? Only where Israel rules, like Hebron, is freedom of religion guaranteed for all.”
Netanyahu announced a $1m cut to Israel’s payments to the UN and said the money would be diverted to establish a Jewish heritage museum in the settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Israel failed to have the motion on Hebron blocked despite the personal intervention of the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.
The move makes Hebron’s old city the third Palestinian world heritage site.