Issue 365: Rare: UN draft resolution rejects Palestinian claim, refuses to list Church of Nativity as UNESCO World Heritage site “endangered” by Israel

Text prepared by professional experts could still be overturned by 21-nation committee meeting soon

GENEVA, June 13, 2012 – The United Nations circulated a draft resolution that would reject a Palestinian bid to list the birthplace of Jesus as an endangered World Heritage site, citing a report by international experts who investigated and dismissed claims that the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was under any specific danger.

The draft resolution will be considered by UNESCO’s 21-nation World Heritage Committee at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, later this month.

The committee — which includes Algeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Malaysia, Mali, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, and the United Arab Emirates — has the power to overturn the expert-drafted text, but insiders say that Arab states may not win the required two-thirds majority, noting that several states, including Russia, the host country, may be hesitant to upset an objective evaluation submitted by UN professionals.

This is the first time in recent memory that a draft resolution circulated by the United Nations — let alone by the largely Arab-dominated UNESCO, which recently elected Assad’s Syria to its human rights committee — openly rejected a Palestinian claim or position.

At the UN, where the General Assembly each year adopts more resolutions criticizing Israel than on the rest of the world combined, this is a spectacle about as rare as Halley’s Comet.

The reason for the extraordinary occurrence is very simple: the Palestinians have just been admitted to UNESCO as a member state, and this is their first time taking advantage of the World Heritage procedure, which is governed in its initial stages by experts who are non-political  — instead of by the very political 195 governments, most of whom join the automatic UN majority that rubber-stamps Arab resolutions.

While there’s no question that holy places are worthy heritage sites, the experts’ complete rejection of the Palestinian allegations underscores the unfortunate manner in which President Mahmoud Abbas is improperly politicizing a vital process for protecting the world’s most historic cultural monuments.

Remarkably, today’s CNN report, which took pains to portray the nomination in a strictly positive light, failed to mention anywhere that the Palestinian submission — its first nomination to the World Heritage List since UNESCO voted to admit “Palestine” as a member in October 2011 — was completely rejected by the professional body charged with evaluating country applications.

In its submission, the Palestinians claimed that “the Israeli occupation,” which is “hampering the supply of appropriate materials,” creates an “emergency situation” that needs to be addressed by “an emergency measure.”

Yet a comprehensive investigation and report by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) – a Paris-based entity that advises the World Heritage Committee on which nominated properties to list — said the very opposite.

“[T]he Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage route in Bethlehem, Palestine should not be inscribed on the World Heritage List on an emergency basis,” said the experts.

“ICOMOS does not consider that the conditions required by paragraph 161 of the Operational Guidelines are fully met, concerning damage or serious and specific dangers to the Church of the Nativity that make its condition an emergency that needs to be addressed by the World Heritage Committee with immediate action necessary for the survival of the property.”

ICOMOS found that, contrary to the Palestinian submission now before the UNESCO committee, the Church of the Nativity was neither “severely damaged,” nor “under imminent threat”.

There was no “immediate action… necessary for the survival of the property”. Despite the Palestinian claims, Israel was not found to be a major obstacle to the preservation of the Church of the Nativity.

In fact, the report pointed out that the church’s roof – said to be at greatest risk – was repaired “most recently in 1990, when works were implemented by the Israeli military authorities.”

Accordingly, ICOMOS suggested that the PA “resubmit the nomination in accordance with normal procedures for nomination.”

Nevertheless, when the 21-nation World Heritage Committee meets in St. Petersburg, from June 24 to July 6, it is still liable to find that the “Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage route, Bethlehem” is under some urgent danger and therefore worthy of special UN protection — a declaration that would only further inflame the region


UN Watch