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Battir’s lost chance to become a UNESCO heritage site paves way for segregation wall


June 22, 2013
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Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Battir] [Apartheid Wall] [UNESCO World Heritage Site] [the Wall]

Battir’s recognition as a World Heritage Site could have bogged down the Israeli plan to construct a wall cutting through its ancient Roman irrigation network. Hopes to secure a nomination are now feeble, not because of a negative evaluation from UNESCO’s currently running annual convention, but instead, because the Palestinians themselves have not filed the 72-page application, already signed by Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas.   

The explanation to this riddle allegedly lies in a series of informal agreements between the Israeli government and the PA. Earlier this year, Palestinian officials and their Israeli counterparts agreed to put the nomination on hold in return for allowing a UNESCO delegation to investigate the conditions of the area surrounding al-Aqsa mosque and the old city of Jerusalem, as well as giving the green light to five pro-Palestinian resolutions in the UN General Assembly. 

The promise proved to be hollow in May of this year, when the Israeli government backed out on the deal claiming the Palestinians had politicized UNESCO's monitoring visit to Jerusalem. Israel argues that Battir was never part of the agreement and therefore brokering a deal with the PA was not part of a plan to drive the application to a standstill until the deadline had passed.

Given that the application should have been submitted back in February by the PA Ministry of Tourism and the PA Antiquities Authorities, activists and those who have worked on the case expressed their bewilderment and disappointment upon learning this week that no application had ever been filed. 

Accusations and tempers have erupted regarding the consequences Battir will have to face now that hopes for UN safeguarding of the site have been dashed. The former UNESCO cultural program specialist Giovanni Fontana Antonelli insisted on the urgency of Battir’s inclusion on UNESCO’s rosters, claiming that filing the same request next year will be too late. Becoming a heritage site would also have upgraded Battir’s economic conditions and historical value. 

Reports from a number of Israeli newspapers on the subject claim that Battir is not a Palestinian village but the holy site of the ancient Jewish fortress of Betar, where the past Jewish residents resisted the Romans in 135 C.E. Accordingly, accepting the Palestinian application, which had no mention of Betar, would have implied a failure from the part of UNESCO to recognize Jewish historical ties to the land.  

Be that as it may, what remains steadfast is the unique historical importance of Battir. This makes the site dear to both the Israeli and Palestinian communities and its preservation a priority for both, despite the lack of official UNESCO recognition. Environmental organizations led by both Israelis and Palestinians, such as Friends of the Earth rule out the possibility that Israel’s creation of a separation wall in the area will simultaneously safeguard the historic land. Now that plans for UNESCO guardianship no longer stand, both communities will have to look past their dissent if they want to preserve the integrity of the site.

 

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