Israeli Envoy: Palestinians Should Fight for Their Rights - Just Not at UNESCO

On the line with Carmel Shama Hacohen, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO

Nir Gontarz
Nir Gontarz
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Israelis wave a flag printed with the word 'messiah' outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Israelis wave a flag printed with the word 'messiah' outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP
Nir Gontarz
Nir Gontarz

Shalom to Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen. This is Nir Gontarz, from Haaretz. How are you?


I want to discuss something with you in regard to the UNESCO vote on the Tomb of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]. There’s something I don’t understand. Okay?

Please, just short and to the point.

No problem. According to my understanding, Unesco is actually saying that the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a World Heritage site, period. The organization adds that this heritage site is located in the Palestinian Authority.

A file photo of ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen, 2013.Credit: Nir Keidar

Not in the Palestinian Authority, in Palestine.

Okay. So the organization has decided that the tomb is a heritage site located in Palestine. What’s the problem with that? Is that what made you angry?

No, no.

Then what?

Read it – there’s a report [relating to] the request to list the site. There’s a professional group called ICOMOS [International Council on Monuments and Sites] – a kind of external group that prepares a complete report, 10 or 20 pages, in which it surveys the country’s request, according to its predetermined criteria, and gives a recommendation: to register, not to register, to postpone conditionally, to reject and it won’t come back to the table. Ah I’ll send

And, to the point?

They write that the request ignores most of the historical connection of Judaism and Christianity to the place.

As far as I understood from reading it, the decision totally recognizes Judaism’s historical connection to the cave.

Yes. They always add some clause to the request, that they recognize the importance of the place to the three religions.

So what’s the problem?

It’s lip service.

Let’s say it is. But what difference does it make; they said it. They could also not have said it – which was the impression that was created by the imprecise reports in the Israeli media.

No. But when you define a site, you say – why do I want it to be registered? Okay? So there’s a difference. All the historical details. When you add a fig leaf – it’s an entirely different story. There’s a signed agreement with the Palestinians that divides this area into two parts. We have here It’s not really a fight to preserve a heritage. There’s a battle here over sovereignty. An Islamization of the place.

But who’s the sovereign in Hebron? The Palestinian Authority. That’s a fact. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu handed Hebron to the Palestinians.

Read the [1997] Hebron Agreement. It divides the city 80-20 [80 percent under PA control; 20 percent under Israeli control].

Still, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in located in a large Palestinian city. Israel can’t demand recognition of sites outside its borders as Israeli heritage sites. Let’s say Jewish graves in Morocco or Iran or Iraq – they can’t be declared Israeli heritage sites. The same is true of Hebron.

Everything is possible. The question is which group you belong to. The Jordanians submitted a request regarding Jerusalem after it had become Israeli territory that wasn’t “occupied” but annexed.

And did they get it?

It wasn’t registered under a country. If you look for the Old City in Jerusalem – unlike the Tomb of the Patriarchs where it says Palestine – the slot [for country] is empty. If the concern is for heritage, rather than politics, then it may have been correct to leave the space for its location blank. Perhaps to refer to the final-status solution who will be the patron. I assist them with joint projects. To build a foundation for trust. The conflict won’t be solved by UNESCO. To my regret – there’s no partner. I don’t tell them: Stop fighting for your rights in the UN Security Council. Fight on the ground, demonstrate, clash on the ground, do what you think is right, each in his own way and according to his world view, but UNESCO has to be a bridge between nations in situations like our nations’. The problem most central to peace is that there’s no trust on many levels. The Israelis see how the final solution is supposed to be.

The final solution

The permanent solution The ‘final solution’ is somewhat sensitive.

I’m an Israeli patriot who belongs to the left, and I say the following: A decision that recognizes the Tomb of the Patriarchs as a World Heritage site – is good for me. The fact that they say that the Palestinians are sovereign – I’m all right with that. It’s a fact. After all, Netanyahu evacuated and gave Hebron to the Palestinians

That’s legitimate. That’s your opinion.

Yes. One second, just let me finish. And the fact that they say that the site is holy to the Jews too – then certainly everything is fine as far as I’m concerned. But you, the government representatives, are playing into the hands of the Palestinians: You’re declaring it a Palestinian victory and a knockout for Israel. I feel the foul is actually on your part. Be happy: The Tomb of the Patriarchs has been declared a World Heritage site.

Look, ah You’re a journalist, right? Judging by the name.


According to the It’s easy to see things from the outside We’re living the dynamic in the organization. Only recently, three or four days ago, we asked [everyone at a UNESCO meeting] to stand for a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of the Nazis in general – so they wouldn’t say only Jews. That’s how we defined it

You’re going to the Nazis and I want to stay focused on the decision regarding the tomb.

Just a second, just a minute. And then everyone stood. But Cuba decided not to stand. In my eyes that’s extremely infuriating.

In my eyes, too.

But as soon as the moment of silence ended, I said that I really appreciated it – that everyone stood. But the Cuban representative was defiant, and she said, If we stood in memory of the Jews, I ask that we stand in memory of the Palestinian victims. That was already something that crossed a red line. Much worse than the decision about Hebron, incidentally.

Of course. So just a second, I understand that you’re dealing with problems, but why not talk about the happy truth: The Tomb of the Patriarchs has been recognized as a World Heritage site and we can assume that UNESCO recognizes the Jewish connection to it while noting a fact – that the tomb is located in Palestinian Hebron. Why not be happy?

In order to understand that, you shouldn’t contact me, you should contact the head of the Israeli government and the ministers and convince them. You should contact Jewish leaders and explain to them that recognizing the Tomb of the Patriarchs, while ignoring most of the Jewish connection, is in our interest, and convince them. I receive assignments from the Israeli government. Once I could have said what I would like to have happen, how I think it should be, ah when you become a [government] official, even a senior official in the embassy – you receive assignments, and carry them out according to instructions.

So if you weren’t a senior official, an ambassador, it’s possible you would see things as I do?

I’m not allowed to express my opinion. It’s a restriction and there’s nothing to be done. I often receive instructions to express myself in one way or another, and to vote in one way or another, contrary to my recommendations.

And regarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs?

On the issue of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, I also had recommendations that were not accepted by the Israeli government. But we’re a properly run country, and there’s someone who decides. But I’m not the issue, and my opinion isn’t the issue. Now I have to hang up.

Thank you very much.

Bye. See you later. Be well.

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