The recent UNESCO decision declaring Hebron, and implicitly also the Cave of the Patriarchs, as a Palestinian heritage site would not raise eyebrows so much if it did not come as the continuation of a consistent UNESCO policy on monuments that touch upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if the decision did not go so overtly against common sense. The attachment of Hebron and of the Cave of the Patriarchs to Judaism is something that is acknowledged also by Christianity and Islam.
Understandably, UNESCO takes this stance in order to highlight that Israel cannot claim sites within the 1967 occupied territories as its own. In that sense, for UNESCO, everything that lies in the territories that Israel captured during the Six Day War is Palestinian. That would be correct and commendable from a legal point of view. It must be possible for a line to be drawn between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Still, in its decisions regarding Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs, or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, UNESCO seems to be trying to draw not only a political but also a historic line between the present and these places’ Jewish past. On these grounds, UNESCO seems to imply that especially when it comes to cultural monuments for which the organization is responsible, history can be overlooked.
Yet, cultural monuments exist not in a historical vacuum but as part of a historical period. It is history that helps us understand the monuments’ significance, their architecture, their sociological or religious meaning. In that sense, the historical identity of a building or a site is something that goes beyond current political realities.
Indeed, in other cases, UNESCO has made such a distinction. Ancient Greek temples in Sicily, like these of Agrigento in Sicily, have been recorded by UNESCO as ancient Greek infrastructures lying in Italy. Similarly, this is the case with sites in the U.S. like the Chaco Culture National Park. Things would be different if UNESCO recognised the old city of Hebron comprising the Cave of the Patriarchs as a Jewish site, inter alia, lying in the territory of the future State of Palestine.
By not detaching politics from history, UNESCO may believe that it is crystallizing and strengthening the international norms against occupation. Yet, the opposite is true. International law cannot be seen bereft of a certain socio-political or historical context. The virtue of international law is its adaptability, its ability to discern beyond generalizations and apply its standards each time according to the realities on the ground, feeling the exigencies of each case.
This is something that the Trump administration realizes when it comes to Israel and the country’s policies beyond the 1967 lines. Whereas the U.S. position against the settlements has not changed, they are not condemned as a violation of international law, as in the Obama era, but on a more pragmatic basis, to the extent that they pose hindrances to the peace process. The Trump administration seems to understand that in some cases, building beyond the 1967 lines should not be so strongly denounced as long as the viability of a future Palestinian state is not put into peril.
This ability to discern is lacking in UNESCO. Yet, ultimately, by ignoring history and the dynamics on the ground, UNESCO makes international law ultimately look irrelevant and too assertive, as trying to regulate not only political borders, but also historic truths and people’s feelings about places. In that sense, it becomes too threatening to be respected. The Netanyahu government could not envision a better opportunity to announce that it is further cutting Israel’s participation to the UN budget.
But further isolation does not serve anyone’s interests and does not contribute to the end of the conflict. Reconciliation and dialogue are important. This reconciliation cannot come though by asking Jews to uproot from their hearts the affection for places that will ultimately lie in the realms of a Palestinian state, or from Palestinian refugees the affection they may feel for places inside the State of Israel, where they may never return.
UNESCO and the international community must understand that a ‘no’ to the Jewish significance of monuments and places, does not ‘liberalize’ the conflict by bringing closer the end of the occupation, but instead instills a sense of irony - by making the Trump policies ultimately look the most liberal of all.
Solon Solomon is a teaching fellow at King’ College London Dickson Poon School of Law,and a former member of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) Legal Department in charge of international and constitutional issues.
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