The Palestinians will seek World Heritage status for the birthplace of Jesus once the UN cultural agency admits them as a full member, and will then nominate other sites in the West Bank for the same standing, an official said.Declaring all of Bethlehem to be a UNESCO site would stop Israel from being able to maintain or protect Rachel's Tomb.
Hamdan Taha, a Palestinian Authority minister who deals with antiquities and culture, said UNESCO membership was the Palestinians' natural right. He described the objections of some governments to the move, including the United States, as "regrettable."
UNESCO's board decided last week to let member states vote on a Palestinian application for full membership, seen as part of a Palestinian drive opposed by Israel and the United States for recognition as a state in the UN system.
"UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?" Taha said. "I see it as crowning long efforts over the past 20 years."
He said that after gaining full UNESCO membership, the Palestinians will revive their bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem and its Church of Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus. The nomination was rejected this year because the Palestinians were not a full UNESCO member.
"This is a simple example of how Palestine has not been able to preserve its cultural heritage through the tools granted to every state in the world," Taha said.
"We will call on the World Heritage Committee to activate this application," said Taha. "We expect that after Bethlehem, other sites will follow."
Aside from Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has listed ancient pilgrimage routes and the West Bank towns of Nablus and Hebron among 20 cultural and natural heritage sites which Taha said could also be nominated as World Heritage Sites.
Taha described the Palestinians' motives as "purely cultural": "This will allow Palestine to actively participate in protecting cultural heritage in the Palestinian territories," he said
The vote on Palestinian membership is expected at UNESCO's General Conference, which runs from October 25 to November 10. The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974.
Similarly, declaring Hebron and Nablus (Shechem) to be UNESCO sites would impact Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Joseph.
Perhaps most pernicious is the threat to declare "ancient pilgrimage routes" to be UNESCO sites as well. These routes, which are not well known, would mean that some (or all) roads to Jerusalem and Bethlehem would become World Heritage Sites. (Other pilgrimage sites were to Nazareth and the Kinneret.)
And these routes are not only within areas controlled, annexed or disputed by Israel but even areas within Israel itself. For example, according to one source, here is the map of the Templar Trail to Jerusalem:
If parts of these routes are within "Palestine" then it hardly makes sense for UNESCO to stop at the Green Line.