by Sveta Listratov
The Israeli-Palestinian Authority conflict has become a clash over history as much as it is a battle of present-day politics. Nowhere is this more evident than a Palestinian Authority campaign which combines both in the halls of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
A resolution passed by UNESCO on Sept. 17 designated Tel Jericho as a “World Heritage Site in Palestine”, reigniting controversy over the status and preservation of Jewish historical sites within the Palestinian Authority.
“On one hand, it’s a very important heritage site, with very important finds that were discovered there, and it should be accessible to Israelis. On the other hand, there are no guarantees for this. Also, more importantly, the state of antiquities in Judea and Samaria is very bad,” Professor Itzhaq Shai told TPS.
Shai is the Vice President and Dean of Research and Development at Ariel University, where he lectures archaeology and land of Israel studies.
Tel Jericho, located near the Palestinian Authority city of Jericho, highlights a rich tapestry of historical archaeology over many periods of time.
Most prominently, archaeologists have revealed the presence of a large Canaanite city state from the Middle Bronze Age, and a Hasmonean palace from the Second Temple Period which was renovated by King Herod.
Notably absent, however, is any evidence of Arab connection to the site, even on UNESCO’s own web page about Tel Jericho.
The Tel Jericho designation is part of a broader pattern of controversial UNESCO measures that sparked Israeli and US accusations that the Paris-based organization is biased against the Jewish State.
Israel and the US withdrew from the organization in 2019. Under the Biden administration, the US resumed its membership in July, but Israel has not.
The withdrawals were triggered by resolutions denying Jewish ties to key holy sites such as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in 2016 and Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 2017.
The Temple Mount, where the First and Second Jewish Temples were built, is the overall holiest site in Judaism.
The Western Wall is the only remnant of a retaining wall encircling the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great in the first century and is the holiest site where Jews can freely pray.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the burial site of the Biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives.
Shomrim Al Hanetzach (Guardians of Eternity), an Israeli organization at the forefront of efforts to protect Jewish historical sites, raised a series of concerns about the fate of these sites under the PA.
“We contend that the UNESCO declaration is intended to serve as evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s readiness and capacity to preserve heritage sites — a readiness that, we assert, is conspicuously absent,” Shomrim’s director of operations, Adi Shargai, told TPS.
“There are instances such as Tel Aroma, a biblical site from the Hasmonean period located in Area B, where archaeological findings are continually destroyed, and significant construction projects have erased any remains.
Notably, a ‘Martyrs’ mosque is under construction at this site, further raising concerns about the preservation of its historical significance.”
Area B refers to areas of Judea and Samaria which are under PA administrative jurisdiction and Israel’s security control.
Another development making news was the discovery of Palestinian Authority plans for a new neighborhood on Mount Ebal, the ancient site of the Prophet Joshua’s altar, adjacent to Shechem (Nablus).
An inspector from the Samaria Regional Council’s Lands Department discovered in early September that the PA has started paving roads as part of a project for 32 housing units on the ruins of the historic site, which is mentioned in the Biblical books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.
The head of the Samaria Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, demanded that the Civil Administration intervene to stop the work immediately.
“No barbarian will be allowed to destroy this [site] of the People of Israel and human history. A disaster of heritage and history,” said Dagan.
Shargai points to the PA Ministry of Tourism’s website, which notably omits any mention of Jewish historical connections to cities like Sebastia, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Instead, the city is presented as a regional capital from the Roman period, disregarding its Jewish history.
“The main goal of the PA is forcing [people] to forget the heritage,” she said.
Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority has submitted to UNESCO a “tentative list” of 14 locations they wish to see recognized as heritage sites. This list includes sites of distinct Jewish heritage, such as Mount Gerizim, a Biblical site next to Shechem, as well as the Qumran caves next to the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, and Sebastia.
In comparison, Israel has submitted 16 sites to UNESCO for consideration over the last 20 years that are still on a tentative list awaiting approval.
Among the sites submitted by Israel whose applications are stuck include the Caesarea National Park known for its seaside Roman aqueduct and other ruins, the Timna National Park and its ancient copper mine and unique geology, and historical sites along Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee.
“It is very important to have the possibility that the Jewish heritage sites located in Judea and Samaria receive the recognition and importance they deserve and will be accessible to all populations that wish to visit and explore them,” Shai said.
“It is important to have one law for all countries and entities that ask UNESCO to preserve their heritage sites.”
Hana Levi Julian contributed to this report.