Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Is the PA qualified to protect Christian and Jewish holy sites?

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As Fairfax's Ruth Pollard reported this morning, now that they have been admitted to UNESCO, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will begin pushing for heritage protection of holy sites in the West Bank.

JERUSALEM: Significant religious sites throughout the West Bank, including the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, will be among the first to be pushed forward for world heritage status now Palestine has been granted membership of UNESCO.

A Palestinian Authority spokesman there were many sites and shrines in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that until now had been unprotected because of a lack of recognition and funding.

''Now we will be able to protect them and make sure they are known around the world,'' he said. ''We believe that becoming a member of the UNESCO is an overdue right for a country that has such a significant amount of heritage sites.''

This follows from a bid launched earlier this year to gain heritage status for the Church of Nativity, believed to be the site where Jesus was born. The idea of the PA being responsible for the care of this church and other non-Muslim holy sites should raise a few eyebrows amongst those who are even vaguely familiar with their recent history.

In 2002, dozens of terrorists from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of PA President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, stormed into the church and initiated a month-long seige. An editorial from The Daily Telegraph (London) at the time illustrates what ensued.

THE Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was reconsecrated yesterday after a terrorist occupation that lasted 38 days. Now that a semblance of normality is returning, the lessons of this extraordinary siege are clearer.

It began on April 3, when more than 100 Palestinian gunmen broke into the church, rightly assuming they would not be pursued inside by the surrounding Israelis. With monks, nuns and other civilians held hostage, church leaders were forced to grant the intruders sanctuary.

The terrorists, almost all Muslims, turned this place of peace into a fortress, desecrating and defiling the basilica built by St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, to mark one of the holiest shrines in Christendom.

The occupiers' contempt for their sanctuary may be deduced from the fact that, when they finally left, the Israelis had to remove up to 40 booby-traps.

While the PA claimed at the time that an Israeli anti-terror operation had forced them to flee into the church as they had nowhere else to go, a PA official who was in command of the Brigade at the time admitted that seizing the church had, in fact, been planned all along.

"The conspiracy was to make a siege and put all the fighters inside the church so Israel would make the siege. People from the Palestinian Authority collaborated with this conspiracy," said Eiman Abu Eita, Fatah's representative in the Bethlehem satellite town of Beit Sahour who at the time of the siege was Beit Sahour's al-Aqsa Brigades chief.

Furthermore, it is not just Christian holy sites that have fallen victim to the PA's contempt. In 2000, PA security forces stood idly by as a Palestinian mob destroyed Joseph's tomb, where the Jewish prophet is believed to be buried. In fact, this brings to light another worrying side of the Palestinian UNESCO bid. Joel Braunold has given an account in The Huffington Post of the PA recently using UNESCO in order to further their agenda of denying any Jewish connection to the land.

As a religious Jew I have a deep connection to Shechem and Hebron even if Palestinians' call these cities Nablus and Al-Khalil. Yet my connection to these parts of the land does not lead to my control over them. I am a fervent believer and advocate of the two state solution and recognise that though I will never give up my connection to the land that falls in the West Bank, I have to give up my want to control it for the sake of peace.

This argument is the same for Palestinians who find their natural homes in what is now Israel. No one should ever deny their connection to the land, but for peace their control over it must be given up.

Exactly this time last year, UNESCO declared that the Tomb of Rachel, the biblical matriarch, which lies just outside Bethlehem, is to be recognised as a mosque. Nowhere in its deliberation did it point to its historical significance to the Jewish people, only that to the Islamic residents of the land. This historical scrubbing out of Jewish connections to different parts of the land is what the Israelis base much of their fear on and use it as proof of a grand Palestinian plan to uproot the whole of Israel.

In any peace deal, the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron will have to be under Palestinian control. This is the second holiest site in Judaism. Will the PA insist on it being seen as a site of Islamic and Christian worship only to UNESCO? Looking at President Abbas speech at the UN last month where he purposefully ignored the Jewish connection to the land, it seems that this is a distinct possibility.

In effect, the holiest site in Christianity is now being placed in the care of an organisation that just 9 years ago used the site to mount a publicity stunt that saved 39 of its soldiers from Israeli prisons, but defiled the church's sanctity. Similarly, some of the holiest sites in Judaism are being placed under the control of an organisation that has a history of denying their significance to Jews and even permitting their destruction. This should hardly be reassuring for anyone with respect for either religious tradition.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz