Sun 17 Sep 2023 9:19 am - Jerusalem Time

UNESCO, Palestine and World Heritage

The State of Palestine officially joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “UNESCO” on 10/31/2011. UNESCO is the first United Nations organization in which the Palestinians seek full membership after Palestine submitted a request for full membership in the Security Council - the United Nations on 9/23/2011.

To obtain full membership in UNESCO, voting took place at the organization’s headquarters in the French capital, Paris, at its thirty-sixth session, in which 173 countries out of 194 countries that enjoy membership in this organization participated. 107 members voted in favor of Palestine’s accession, while 14 members opposed. 52 members abstained from voting, including the United States and Israel. Since that time, Palestine has achieved many achievements within the corridors of UNESCO and registered three sites on the World Heritage List, as follows:

- In Bethlehem - the birthplace of Jesus Christ: the Church of the Nativity and the pilgrims’ path in 2012,

- In Battir - the land of grapes and olives and the cultural landscape of South Jerusalem in 2014,

- In Hebron - the site of the Old City in 2017.

Now, in September 2023, Palestine will celebrate the fourth achievement since joining the organization by registering the archaeological site of Tell al-Sultan in ancient Jericho, after it met the selection criteria for registering the site. Voting will take place during the World Heritage Committee’s 45th session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage states that some of the world's sites are of "outstanding universal value" and must form part of the common heritage of humanity. More than 190 members joined this agreement, commonly known as the “World Heritage Convention,” forming an international community united under a common mission of identifying and preserving the most important natural and cultural heritage sites in the world. The agreement emphasizes the role of local communities as an effective tool to address issues of climate change, rapid urban expansion, mass tourism, sustainable social and economic development, natural disasters, and other contemporary challenges that may harm archaeological sites.

Israel joined UNESCO in 1949, and the organization expelled it in 1974 after it carried out excavations in the Haram al-Sharif area. However, it regained its membership and achieved several gains, registering 9 sites on the heritage list, including the Great Beit Shearim Cemetery, which is an important shrine for the Jewish renewal movement in 2015, and the Baha’i holy places in Haifa and the Galilee in 2008, the biblical hills in Megiddo and Beersheba in 2005, the Incense Route in the Negev Desert in 2005, the white city of Tel Aviv in 2003, the ancient city of Akko and Masada in 2001 until Israel officially withdrew from the organization on October 17, 2018, and its withdrawal entered into force at the beginning of 2019. This came in protest against what it called UNESCO’s bias towards the Palestinians after adopting several resolutions related to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. Despite officially discontinuing its membership in UNESCO, Israel is still represented in the Heritage Committee in order to preserve the areas registered in its name. Under Trump, America suspended its membership and support for UNESCO, but returned with the victory of Biden and the Democrats.

In 2011, Palestine did not succeed in obtaining full membership in the Security Council, but it did in the General Assembly in 2012 with a majority vote under the Union for Peace clause, becoming a non-member observer “state” by Resolution 67/19, after the PLO had the status of an “entity.” Observer since 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Accordingly, Palestine obtained the privilege of joining international treaties, agreements and organizations. According to the United Nations database, there are more than 560 multilateral treaties internationally, Palestine has joined about 70 of them. The State of Palestine was able to achieve these achievements with the vision and leadership of the Executive Committee of the PLO at that time, represented by Dr. Saeb Erekat, who chaired the Supreme National Committee for Palestine’s accession to international agreements and treaties, and he was the one who adopted and led the internationalization strategy to consolidate Palestine’s position on the geography map. He used specialized international legal advisors in coordination with the competent authorities internally, represented by the competent ministry - in the case of heritage, the Ministry of Tourism - and in cooperation with the official representative of the PLO in each of these international organizations. He continued working to ensure the registration of its membership and full representation and to achieve international diplomatic gains, believing in the importance of establishing Rights and documentation to preserve the status of Palestine and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in all aspects of international law and UN resolutions to confront the occupation’s attempts to steal identity and heritage and distort the Palestinian narrative.

It is necessary for the PLO to reactivate efforts, in full coordination between all parties, to register other archaeological sites in Palestine to ensure the protection of the cultural and natural heritage and Palestinian archaeological sites that are threatened by the natural and human factors of time and the occupation’s destructive or Judaization attempts. We must not be satisfied with registering these sites, but rather work to protect and promote them and carefully transform them into tourist attraction sites to contribute to the international promotion process that supports the Palestinian economy and Palestine’s international presence.

- Dalal Erekat: Professor of Diplomacy and Strategic Planning, College of Graduate Studies, Arab American University.


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