UNESCO’s recognition of the Bethlehem church believed to be the birthplace of Jesus could pave the way for securing and preserving other historical monuments in Palestine
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the oldest Christian church in the world that is still in use, an important example of early church architecture, and believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus — was recently acknowledged as a monument of universal significance. It is for the first time that a Palestinian monument has been recognised as a World Heritage Site.
The recognition comes 40 years after UNESCO first adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972. The delay had nothing to do with the rigorous process of selecting sites that qualify for the status but because of Israel’s determined opposition to any move that would strengthen Palestinian claim to nationhood or support its narrative of the past. It stiffly resisted attempts to confer World Heritage status, fearing that such acknowledgment would amount to recognising these monuments as an integral part of Palestine. Palestine’s struggle has been to rescue what is rightfully its heritage. While receiving World Heritage recognition may not radically alter its political position or change its abject condition, it certainly raises hopes for a better future.
Focus on Jerusalem
The Assyrians, Romans and Ottomans ruled this contested land between Egypt and Jordan for many hundred years. The region has been home to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and their histories are inscribed in Bethlehem, Nablus, Jericho, Hebron and other historic cities. Jerusalem is the crown jewel.
The U.N. worked out a partition plan in 1947 when hostilities between the Arabs and Jews escalated. Two nations — Israel and Palestine — were carved out, leaving the city of Jerusalem as a separate territorial entity under U.N. administration.
This plan could not be implemented. Jerusalem became the flashpoint; war broke out, and the neighbouring Arab states joined the fight. In 1948, Israel occupied the western part of the city, which was relatively new, and Jordan occupied the eastern quarter of Jerusalem, which was the old city, and West Bank. A year later, Israel and Jordan agreed to firm up this division only to violate it.
After the 1967 war, Israel took control of East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories. It later declared that the united Jerusalem city would be its irreversible capital. The U.N. Security Council rejected this aggression, but that did not change the ground conditions.
The Oslo Accords in the 1990s led to a limited transfer of administrative authority to Palestinians. Jerusalem remains among the most contentious issues between the two sides, with both considering it their capital.
Israel became an independent nation and joined the U.N as early as 1949; Palestine is yet to be recognised. This insecure existence has brought in multiple-jeopardy, and heritage is among the worst affected issues.
Israel has had a free run over the Palestine monuments and brazenly tried to Judaise some of them. In 2010, it included the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Mosque of Ibrahim in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb, known as Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem, in its national heritage list and designated them for renovation as Jewish heritage sites. It ventured to erase the interfaith character of these sites and ignored their location within the Palestinian territory.
Earlier, in 2004, experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) listed many instances of wanton destruction. About 14 historic structures were destroyed in the old city of Hebron.
At Nablus, the 17th century Abdelhadi Palace was pulled down, and old markets, Caravanserai, Al-Khadra Mamluk Mosque and the Greek Orthodox Church destroyed. Since 2002, Israeli authorities have authorised settlers to construct new buildings on top of the archaeological site of Tell Rumeida.
Another major problem that confronts occupied Palestine is the limited territory on which it can build and expand. As UNESCO’s recent reports indicate, “the accelerating need for commercial property and for accommodation” has brought great development pressure on the old areas surrounding the heritage sites.
It is in this difficult context that the recognition of the Church of the Nativity assumes significance.
UNESCO has been assisting Palestine since 2002 to identify important heritage sites, improve institutional capacity and develop programmes to conserve its historic cities.
So far, 20 monuments have been identified as potential World Heritage sites, with the Church of the Nativity topping the list. However, UNESCO shied away from a decision when it came to actual recognition. It rejected the Palestinian application for World Heritage status because Palestine was not a sovereign state.
This position of UNESCO was in contrast to the creativity and courage it exhibited in 1981. At that time, it overruled Israeli and U.S. objections, accepted Jordan’s proposal and declared the old city of Jerusalem and its walls as World Heritage monuments.
Finally, last year, Palestine managed to secure the votes it needed to become a member of UNESCO when 107 of the 173 countries voted in its favour. The move cost UNESCO about $60 million as the United States held back its annual contribution as a form of punishment.
Following this, Palestine again nominated the Church of the Nativity and part of the pilgrimage route leading to it for World Heritage status. It was touch-and-go. ICOMOS, which professionally assessed the nomination, recommended the application be deferred — the proposed conservation plan was not comprehensive enough. But UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee decided to overlook this. The Church of the Nativity was conferred special status and simultaneously placed in the list of monuments in danger.
On a parallel track, archaeologists from both sides have been working together for years. In 2008, in an effort mediated by American archaeologists they signed an agreement accepting that “the national territories of Israel and Palestine constitute a unified archaeological landscape,” and to make their sites accessible to the public without discrimination. They have also decided to return all artefacts “excavated subsequent to 1967 to the state in which their original archaeological context is located, either Israel or Palestine,” if and when the territorial disputes are settled.
Gaining UNESCO recognition for heritage sites may not drastically alter the ground realities, but it is certainly an improvement over what exists. For Palestine, it incentivises the better management of its heritage as it holds out the possibility that other historic monuments too may be listed for wider recognition. It also gives Palestinians hope for a separate state with a secure future and well preserved past.