In the West Bank, a contested heritage

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims at prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The attack took place in 1994, not 1995. This version has been corrected.


A Muslim worshiper sits by the Tomb of Isaac in a site known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jews or the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Samuel Sockol/WASHINGTON POST)
November 21, 2011

At a museum just off the desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the West Bank, the artifacts of a contested heritage are on display.

Colorful mosaic floors from Byzantine-era churches and synagogues, inscriptions, Roman capitals and stone burial boxes — all dug up by Israeli archaeologists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — are shown at the site, developed by Israel’s West Bank military administration with the Israeli antiquities authority.

An Israeli flag flies over the museum and adjacent ruins of ancient pilgrim hostels, asserting Israel’s control of the site, which is traditionally identified as the location of the inn mentioned in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

But now, after more than 40 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinians are making a bid for greater control of the West Bank’s historical and archaeological landmarks, which they are claiming as their own.

Last month’s vote by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to admit Palestine as a member has boosted efforts by Palestinian officials to gain the agency’s World Heritage List designation for sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has also raised expectations of greater international support for preservation efforts in the areas that Palestinians seek for a future state.


The Palestinian Authority is planning on nominating the shrine, along with the old city of Hebron, to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The Israeli government has designated the compound a national heritage site. (Samuel Sockol/The Washington Post)

“The full recognition of Palestine as a member of UNESCO opens new horizons for the protection of cultural heritage in Palestine,” said Hamdan Taha, director of the department of antiquities and cultural heritage in the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. “There is new momentum now for the World Heritage issue in Palestinian society.”

Early this year, the Palestinians nominated Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity, venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, for recognition as a World Heritage site, an application that can now be considered with Palestine’s status as a UNESCO member state. Bethlehem is under control of the Palestinian Authority.

Taha said preparations are underway to nominate the old city of Hebron, an area under Israeli control that includes the compound known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The shrine is regarded in Jewish and Muslim tradition as the burial place of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives.

Similar efforts are being made to nominate the Palestinian-controlled ancient city of Jericho, Taha said.

Designation as a World Heritage site brings with it funding and technical and training assistance, in addition to promotional help from UNESCO for the maintenance and preservation of the recognized landmark. It can also heighten international interest and help develop local expertise in the conservation and management of such sites.

But the disputed political future of the West Bank has made heritage preservation a point of contention.

For decades, Israel’s military government in the West Bank, known as the Civil Administration, has conducted archaeological surveys and excavations in the territory, carrying out what it says is its mandate under international conventions to protect and preserve the antiquities in the area.

After the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank, some prominent archaeological sites came under Palestinian control, but other key sites remained under Israeli management, excavated and promoted as Israeli tourist attractions.

Several Palestinian nonprofit groups in the West Bank have in recent years promoted the preservation of architectural landmarks, old centers of towns and villages, and archaeological sites, while trying to raise public awareness of the need to preserve the area’s cultural heritage, which they consider a national asset.

The effort has clear political overtones. “It’s an important part of nation-building,” said Adel Yahya, an archaeologist who heads the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, a group that promotes Palestinian heritage and preservation of historic sites. Yahya said that one of the biggest challenges is to halt the looting of antiquities, which he said is driven by economic hardship among Palestinians and the popular perception of archaeology as “a tool of occupation” by Israel.

Khouloud Daibes, minister of tourism and antiquities in the Palestinian Authority, said that through membership in UNESCO, Palestinians will be able to secure international recognition of West Bank sites “as Palestinian cultural heritage, and they will not be listed or claimed as Israeli heritage and part of Israel, as many of our sites are marketed.”

She said that Palestinians did not have access to the findings of Israeli excavations in the West Bank and were seeking the recovery of artifacts removed to Israel.

In 2002, concerned about the destruction of historic buildings during an Israeli military offensive in the West Bank that followed a wave of suicide bombings in Israel, UNESCO sponsored a Palestinian inventory of 20 cultural and natural sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with potential for nomination as World Heritage sites. A few of the sites, such as the Qumran caves in the Judean Desert, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, remain under Israeli control.

In Israel, where the Palestinian entry to UNESCO is viewed as a purely political ploy, the government last year put two West Bank shrines — the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, a site holy to Jews and Muslims — on a list of Israeli national heritage sites slated for renovation and preservation.

On a visit this week to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, said it is important to remind the world of “our connection to this holy site,” which he said Israel maintains as an open shrine for visitors of all faiths. Strict security and prayer arrangements have been in force at the site since a 1994 attack in which a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims at prayer.

Taha, the Palestinian official, said he viewed Jewish antiquities in the West Bank and Gaza as an integral part of “the mosaic of Palestinian culture.” He said that the Palestinian Authority had in recent years restored the remains of an ancient synagogue in Jericho, which was vandalized after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.

“We view it as part of our heritage,” he said. “We will protect it.”

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