As irony would have it, the international year of rapprochement of cultures began with violent protests around two cultural sites, and Israel is the transgressor. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, and Rachel's Tomb, known as Masjid Bilal in Bethlehem, are heritage structures of importance to Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Notwithstanding the universally accepted interfaith character of these sites and their location in occupied Palestinian territory, Israel recently included them in its national heritage list, designating them for renovation as Jewish heritage sites. This cannot pass as a benign attempt to conserve old buildings. Neither is it an isolated incident. Earlier, affected Palestinian families appealed to the United Nations to stop Israel and a Jewish organisation from constructing a museum over an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. Organised Judaisation of ancient sites is a plan to deny Palestinians their share of the past, thus prejudicing their future. The usurpation of two sites is an act of provocation and the U.N. has properly expressed its concern. Conservation, as UNECO advocates, should aim at building peace, not creating conflict.
These lawless acts severely undermine UNESCO's ongoing collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of the Palestinian Authority and civil society groups to protect and preserve the cultural heritage sites in the West Bank. They deny Palestinians opportunities to build their capacity in heritage management. These actions also spotlight the limitations of the relevant international conventions and laws. The widely adopted Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998) deal primarily with damage to monuments caused by inter-state wars and occupation. It was only in 1999 that UNESCO, realising the complexities of sponsored violence, introduced the second protocol to the Hague convention to include damage caused by internal conflict. However, the focus is on the interpretation of issues such as the notion of military necessity, movable properties, and sanctions for breaches. What is happening in Israel cannot be framed within the narrow definitions since the monuments are not physically damaged. Threats to memories and possible erasure of evidence of multiple claims are equally serious. It is time to reframe the conventions and provide firm protection to the past of vulnerable groups. Israel must desist from appropriating inter-faith heritage sites and robbing Palestinians of what belongs to them by right.