Why Israel Doesn’t Want UNESCO to Recognize Hebron
International law practitioner and researcher Dr. Valentina Azarova discusses the politics involved in UNESCO’s decision to rule Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage Site in danger
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The World Heritage Branch of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, has deemed the old city of Hebron in Palestine to be a World Heritage Site in danger. The old city of Hebron is under strict Israeli military occupation. Palestinian life in Hebron is restricted so that Israel can maintain its illegal settlements in the city center. Alfredo Conti, a global conservation specialist, said Hebron’s rich heritage is under threat.
ALFREDO CONTI: What is clear is that the threats and violation are systematic and long standing. They have a significant impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, resulting in the gradual depopulation of the old town, although this is to a degree now being reversed. Those who interfere with the conservation of cultural heritage assets. Over time, this can be seen to threaten the resilience and sustainability of urban life and the conservation of the property.
AARON MATÉ: The Israeli government has denounced the decision. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to withdraw Israeli funding to the UN, and several senior members of the Israeli government accused UNESCO of anti-Semitism, claiming UNESCO is denying Jewish heritage in Hebron. Dr. Valentina Azarova is an international law practitioner and researcher currently based at the Center for Global Public Law, Koc University Law School, in Instanbul, Turkey. She is also a legal advisor for the Global Legal Action Network, based in the UK. Valentina, welcome.
V. AZAROVA: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Talk about what UNESCO has ruled here in Hebron.
V. AZAROVA: This is a decision of the World Heritage Committee, of which 15 members voted, 12 for and three against, the listing of Hebron’s old city in the list of sites in danger of UNESCO in order to essentially, in line with UNESCO’s treaties, affirm that it is both a site that has the status of world cultural heritage, and in particular it falls under the category of sites that deserve special protection given the circumstances that it faces.
The definition of such sites is very strictly provided in UNESCO’s international instruments. These are sites whose authentic characteristics are being subject to change or can be subject to change imminently. As you’ve noted, that is indeed the case here. It’s a decision that places that site under the direct supervision of the World Heritage Committee and its very procedures to ensure and monitor that those changes don’t take place to the extent possible, and that various measures can be taken by states and other non-state actors to counter such measures.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about what Israel is doing inside Hebron. It’s hard for people I think who haven’t been there to fully grasp it. I visited once, and was just shocked to see the reality there, where you have a few thousand Israeli settlers are concentrated in the center of town, and areas around them are basically shut off and blocked off to Palestinians so that Israeli settlers can go about their daily lives, confining Palestinians to their homes.
V. AZAROVA: That’s right. There’s uniquely in Israel’s experience, this is an extremely disproportionate situation in terms of the military installations and presence versus the presence of the some hundreds of settlers, living in conditions that are very close and uniquely close, exceptionally close proximity to the Palestinians in the area known as H two, which is about a half of the old city of Hebron. That area has basically been subject to extremely heavy restrictions on movements, of cars in particular as well as people, and families that used to live there have resultedly left their homes. Businesses have closed down. It’s become a ghost town by some reports, and the conditions there have deteriorated over the years.
AARON MATÉ: It’s widely reported that UNESCO is taking a side here in terms of Hebron’s importance to the Jewish and Muslim faiths, but as I understand it, all UNESCO did is simply declare Hebron to be a heritage site, right?
V. AZAROVA: That’s right. UNESCO doesn’t take a position on the characteristics of a site. A site is presented in extremely documented fashion, with expert opinions and a huge amount of paperwork and procedures that take years, in order to substantiate the world cultural heritage status of that site and also to show that it is indeed in danger, in our case. This is a site that is listed as a Palestinian site because it is the state of Palestine, which is a member of UNESCO since October 2010 that’s listing that site. It’s listed under sites of the past. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Battir’s Palestinian landscape are also on the same list of sites in danger.
This is one more amongst others that could and perhaps should be listed, but it is certainly one of exceptional character and particularly, given the Israeli claims to the compound of the mosque and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the changes to the character of that particular compound have been greater than in many other places. The significance of that compound to all three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is affirmed in the decision of the committee, and that significance is what UNESCO is there to protect, the original character of the site.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. From religion, let’s talk about the politics of this. You’ve written before that it’s important for Palestinians to activate their UNESCO membership. When they did so in 2011, it prompted a huge backlash. The U.S., under President Obama, threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority if I recall correctly. Is this one of the reasons why you think the U.S. and Israel were concerned about Palestinians joining UNESCO, because it might offer them the kinds of international protection that a decision like this might provide?
V. AZAROVA: Right. Joining UNESCO, it is October 2011 when this happened, right after the activation of the UN bid which basically entails Palestine joining a whole set of treaties and international organizations. That took place up until 2015, if you will, and may continue, but the particular decision by UNESCO is the first one to admit Palestine as a state party to a UN agency, which was exceptional and created an important precedent which can still be used.
Within the context of the UNESCO, the reason why we focused our brief for Al-Shabaka and my previous work also with an academic called David Keane from Middlesex University on that issue, UNESCO is an extremely rich and detailed, exceptionally so, normative framework which has essentially been transferred into domestic laws worldwide. A lot of states have put these requirements in their own law and enforced them very vigorously. The detail and the vigor of the enforcement measures that states take was one reason why the focus on UNESCO is quite significant.
There are one can say four ways in which this move to join UNESCO can be activated, and they’re all, from our perspective as international lawyers, normative, legally based processes. One is the fact that the site itself can be preserved or at least the measures taken to harm its character can be carefully scrutinized, and adequate international responses can be mobilized through this monitoring mechanism of UNESCO.
Secondly, Israel has actually in previous cases, like that of Battir’s cultural landscape being listed, was dissuaded from certain measures it was previously ready to take, like in that case the construction of a wall that would have significantly harmed the landscape and also isolated the village from its surrounding. It has deterred Israel from taking additional unlawful measures.
Thirdly, of course, there’s a certain legal and political element to this in a broader sense for Palestinians, because this is part of their cultural heritage but it’s also part of their national sovereign domain. The more sites like this in particularly precarious conditions and circumstances are being listed, the more Palestinians are asserting their right to self-determination and right to independence and essentially Israel’s occupation to withdraw from the territory.
Finally, this is a very important task for UNESCO and for international law in this field, which is extremely developed again and intended to protect this kind of world cultural heritage for humanity. It’s an interest, it’s a public good, that the international community has signed up to, and that other third states that might become involved in activities that Israel is facilitating, archeological, cultural, that involve these kind of sites, need to take heed of.
AARON MATÉ: Given all that, is this decision by UNESCO leading to some hope in Hebron that Palestinian life could improve there, because now it has this global body affirming that the city is under threat?
V. AZAROVA: These processes, as I mentioned, take years, so to begin with, the listing must have started a good year and a half before it happened and perhaps longer than that. Many other sites of this character in other places in the world that are subject to armed conflict or other circumstances that place those sites in danger have been on the list for years and years. The monitoring process, the scrutiny, the reaction by international and non-state groups, the support that comes to such regimes to essentially rehabilitate or somehow protect these sites, is slow to come, of course.
These are slow-burning and extremely tedious processes, but they have brought these issues and the characteristics of this particular situation, the old city of Hebron, to a different international level. The conversation is no longer as Israel would like it on its terms, but rather on terms that require other states to act again for the interests that they’ve signed up to this organization for. It changes the equation somewhat, and it is hoped that further engagement by Palestine and Palestinian representatives with these institutions can actually deter Israel and perhaps at least alleviate conditions on the ground in the long run.
AARON MATÉ: Given that prospect, let’s talk about Israel’s response. I mentioned earlier Israel threatening to cut off funding to UNESCO. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took out a Bible recently and read a passage claiming to affirm the historic ties between the Jewish people and Hebron. There’s a group of Israeli settlers in Hebron who want the next Israeli cabinet meeting to be held there right in the center. How is Israel responding to all this?
V. AZAROVA: I think the response is characteristic, as much as I hate to say it. These have been the kinds of responses we’ve seen to every Palestinian move in the context of the UN bid, so-called. A similar if not worthy response came to the joining of Palestine, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and other measures that of course Palestine could be taking but is also discouraged from taking given the consequences. Now, those consequences extend beyond punishment, so to speak, for the Palestinian people, but also punishment for UN human rights institutions, led by the U.S. administration that is threatening to withdraw funds. The stakes are high.
AARON MATÉ: Dr. Valentina Azarova is an international law practitioner and researcher currently based at the Center for Global Public Law, Koc University Law School, in Istanbul, Turkey. She is also a legal advisor for the Global Legal Action Network based in the UK. Valentina, thank you.
V. AZAROVA: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.