Israel Sharply Criticizes UNESCO Ruling on Shrines

Published: October 29th 2010
in News » Israel

Tomb of Abraham
Pic: wikimedia commons

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly criticized the decision of UNESCO, the world body charged with preserving world heritage sites, to categorize West Bank religious sites sacred to Jews and Muslims as Palestinian.


Netanyahu called the decision “absurd,” saying it was an attempt to disconnect Israel from its cultural heritage.


He condemned a new UNESCO report  that described Rachel’s Tomb, located near Bethlehem in the West Bank, as a mosque. It asked Israel to remove Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, located in Hebron, from Israel’s list of national heritage sites.


The PMO released a statement saying, "It is unfortunate that an organization that was established with the goal of promoting the cultural preservation of historical sites around the world, is attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural heritage."


Netanyahu added, "The state of Israel in contrast to its neighbours will continue to preserve freedom of religion at these sites and preserve them for future generations.”


The ruling by UNESCO comes on the heels of Israel adding the two sites to the national heritage registry. Both are on land that the Palestinians want as part of a future state.


The Cave of the Patriarchs has been a hotspot for years. Jews believe it is the location where the Bible says patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives were buried. On the other hand, Muslims refer to it as the al-Ibrahimi mosque, due to the fact that they also consider Abraham the father of Islam.


Hebron is the only West Bank town where Jews and Palestinians live together. Approximately 500 settlers live near the Cave of the Patriarchs guarded by IDF soldiers. Hebron has a population of 170,000 Palestinians.


 At its twice yearly general meeting last week, UNESCO voting for five proposals put forward by Arab countries referring to Jewish and Muslim shrines.


UNESCO also stated its “deep concern [over] ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works” around the Al-Aqsa Mosque area in the Old City in Jerusalem.


The Israeli government says that this is the first time politically charged language was used with reference to Rachel’s Tomb.


In the approved resolution, which was voted on 44 to 1 with 12 abstentions, the tomb was referred to as “Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb." UNESCO reiterated that the site was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law."


Israeli media is reporting that while admittedly the area has contained a mosque and a Muslim cemetery, Muslims have always referred to Rachel’s Tom as “Qubat Rachel,” saying that the name “Bilal bin Rabah Mosque” dates only as far back as 1996 when after riots, the name was created for political purposes.


On Friday, Israeli Army Radio said that the Foreign Ministry released a statement attacking the UNESCO decision as “crude” and “politically deceptive” language that twists the organizations cultural mandate. The Foreign Ministry source was quoted as saying the decision was “shameful [and] reeked of political bias.”


Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi who is in charge of the Western Wall and religious shrines, was quoted by Israeli media saying that UNESCO “has turned heritage into politics” and is “distorting history.”


In March, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reported in Saudi newspaper Al Wattan claiming that the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were never Jewish sites and never will be in the future, and were always Islamic sites.

Related articles: (UNESCO, Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, Bethlehem, Rachel, heritage sites, Turkey, Erdogan)

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