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Long a symbol of Jewish fighting spirit, the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada on Thursday became one of the first two Israeli heritage sites to join UNESCO's prestigious protected list.

The Crusader-era Old City in Acre, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, shared the honor of being inscribed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. But it was Masada, in the remote Judean Desert, which drew crowds.

Two thousand years ago, 960 Jewish rebels occupying King Herod's winter palace there held off besieging Roman legionnaires for months. When the Romans finally broke through the ramparts, the rebels slit each other's throats. The saga inspired entire generations of Israelis raised on the certainty of war with their Arab neighbors.

Even cabinet colleagues of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took time out from a coalition crisis to attend Thursday's ceremony, which put Masada on a par with Egypt's Sphinx, the Roman Colosseum and the Great Wall of China.

"Here we have a heritage of courage, of choosing a terrible death rather than submitting to slavery," Limor Livnat, the education minister, said after unveiling the UNESCO plaque at the monument towering 450 meters over the Dead Sea.

The Hungarian head of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee was more circumspect. "The question we faced in making the )inscription( decision was whether Masada has universal and unique value or not," Tamas Ferjedy told Reuters at the site, one of Israel's big tourist draws.

"The suicide is not really the point. What is important is this very heroic story -- the Jewish history, Roman history -- that is felt all around," he said gesturing at the relics. Yet in recent years some historians have cast doubt on the account of the Masada slaughter and, like most debates in Israel, this one has a modern day political side to it.

Some see Israel as a besieged fortress whose defenders must fight to the end against an implacable foe. Others argue that a refusal to compromise will bring only bloodshed, pointing to a two-year-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in which suicide bombings have been devastatingly common.

"If UNESCO is endorsing places where hundreds of fanatics killed themselves, then why not go to Jonestown as well?" said Nachman Ben-Yehuda of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, referring to a 1978 mass suicide by a doomsday cult in Guyana.

A professor of sociology and anthropology, Ben-Yehuda wrote two books on what he calls the manipulation of Masada to suit a fledgling Jewish state desperately short of heroes.

The Jewish National Fund bought the site from its Bedouin owners in 1932, and Zionist youth groups frequented it. Archaeological digs did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, when it was overseen by Yigal Yadin, a fervent nationalist. "I won't say there was outright lying about the findings," Ben-Yehuda said. "But those archaeologists knew exactly what to emphasize and what to play down."

The details of the Masada siege are derived from one source -- "The Jewish War" by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish general who defected to the Romans and chronicled how their campaign crushed the revolt in ancient Palestine between 67 and 73 AD."

Josephus wrote as Rome's lackey, to prove that the Jews had capitulated. If truth be told, what he describes is not a story of bravery, nor is it pleasant," Ben-Yehuda said. He noted that Josephus described the Masada rebels as "sicarii", or dagger-assassins. "They were brigands who, en route to the fortress, killed 700 Jews in nearby Ein Gedi. How come that never gets mentioned in the narratives?"

To Livnat, it was all a question of context. "The rebels' action is controversial, yes," she told a group of schoolchildren. "But you have to admire their determination."