On Friday, the United Nation’s cultural agency, UNESCO, voted to designate the old city of Hebron as a “Palestinian World Heritage site”. Hebron is the location of the Cave of the Patriarchs (also known as the Cave of Machpelah), where biblical figures including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives are buired. The vote took place despite vocal objections from the United States and Israel.
The Cave of Machpelah is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for Jewish people (following the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). According to the Bible the cave and adjoining field were purchased by the patriarch Abraham approximately 3700 years ago. The account is detailed in Genesis 23.
The decision (conducted via secret ballot among UNESCO member states) marks the first time in history that the United Nations has recognized a significant Jewish religious site as part of the “State of Palestine.”
Following the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision: “This is another delusional UNESCO decision. This time they decided that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site, meaning that it is not Jewish, and that the site is in danger. Not a Jewish site?! Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah – our patriarchs and matriarchs! And the site is in danger? It is only in those places where Israel is, such as Hebron, that freedom of religion for all is ensured.”
The United Nations, through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has the authority to designate sites as “World Heritage Sites.” Criteria for selection includes the site’s cultural, historical, or scientific significance. Sites are legally protected by international treatises. Hebron now becomes the third “Palestinian World Heritage Site,” all of which have been designated as “in danger.”
The old city of Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs is located in Judea, commonly referred to as the West Bank. As the largest city in the West Bank, Hebron is home to approximately 200,000 Palestinians and 500-800 Jewish Israelis. Administration of the city is divided into two sectors: H1 is governed by the Palestinian Authority whereas H2 is under the auspice of Israel. The Israeli military maintains a significant military presence in H2 to protect Jewish inhabitants who represent a sizeable minority of Hebron’s population.
Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating from the Chalcolithic period (3,000 years BC). According to the Bible (2 Samuel 2:11) Hebron served as King David’s capital during the first seven years of his reign. Hebron has been conquered by the Romans, Jews, Crusaders, and Muslims throughout its’ history. As mentioned, Jewish tradition holds that the Tomb of the Patriarchs is where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives are buried. Muslims also attach significance to the site. Muslim Mamelukes built the Ibrahimi mosque in the 14th century to honor Abraham, who is revered in Islam.
After constructing the mosque, Muslim Mamelukes forbade entry to the site to Jews (who were not allowed beyond the seventh step on the outside staircase). This was enforced throughout the reign of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917) and by the British government during the British Mandate (1923-1948). Following the Israeli War of Independence (1948) and the Jordanian annexation of the Judean Mountains, it was illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Hebron. However, following the Six-Day War in 1967, Hebron became part of Israel. In 1967, Major-General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, was the first Jew to enter the Cave of Machpelah in over 700 years.
Despite the Jewish religious and historical significance of the city, UNESCO’s declaration barely mentions any of this. Although “the tomb of Abraham and his family” is mentioned, the only other reference to Judaism occurs in the sentence: “This place became a site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
In addition to his strong denouncement of the decision, Netanyahu announced that Israel would cut one million dollars from Israel’s payments to the United Nations and that the money would be used to establish a Jewish heritage museum in Kiryat Arba, a small city bordering Hebron.
Despite the UNESCO declaration regarding Hebron, the city (and the Cave of Machpelah) remain under Israeli control.