‘Cynical’: Israel slams UN vote to list Jericho as World Heritage Site in ‘Palestine’

Israel furious over move from the global body’s cultural agency UNESCO, from which Jerusalem exited in 2019 amid anti-Israel bias.

By World Israel News Staff and Associated Press

A UN committee voted Sunday to list prehistoric ruins near the ancient Biblical city of Jericho as a World Heritage Site in Palestine, a decision that angered Israel, which controls the territory and does not recognize a Palestinian state.

Jericho is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, and is in a part of Judea and Samaria that is administered by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli citizens are barred from visiting.

The listing refers to the Tell es-Sultan archaeological site nearby, which contains prehistoric ruins dating back to the ninth millennium B.C. and is outside the ancient city itself.

The decision was made at a meeting of the U.N. World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, under the auspices of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

Israel’s foreign ministry released a statement Sunday that said the listing was a “cynical” ploy by the Palestinians to politicize UNESCO, and that Israel will work with its allies to reverse what it says are the organization’s “distorted” decisions.

Israel quit UNESCO in 2019, accusing it of being biased against it and of diminishing its connection to the Holy Land. Israel also objected to UNESCO’s acceptance of Palestine as a member state in 2011. But Israel remains a party to the World Heritage Convention, and it sent a delegation to the meeting in Riyadh.

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Israel captured Judea and Samaria, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 defensive Six Day War. The Palestinians want all three territories for their future state. Israel views Judea and Samaria as the biblical and cultural heartland of the Jewish people.

The modern city of Jericho is a major draw for tourism to the Palestinian territories, both because of its historical sites and proximity to the Dead Sea. In 2021, the Palestinian Authority unveiled major renovations to one of the largest mosaics in the Middle East, in a Jericho palace dating back to the 8th century.

Tell es-Sultan, an oval-shaped mound, contains evidence of one of humanity’s first-known villages and an important Bronze-Age town dating back to 2600 B.C. It is around 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the remains of the first city of Jericho, which contains ruins of importance to Jewish history, including a synagogue dating back to the first century B.C.

UNESCO, which refers to the site as Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan, took pains to clarify that the two are distinct.

“The property proposed for nomination is the prehistoric archaeological site of Tell es-Sultan located outside the antique site of Jericho,” Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s assistant director general, said during the meeting to discuss the site.

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“Later historical developments, which span over millennia and are demonstrated by material remains beyond the boundaries of Tell as-Sultan, constitute a rich cultural context, worth of historical interest and preservation, covering among others, Jewish and Christian heritage. However, this is not the focus of the proposed nomination.”

Historical heritage has long been among the many flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides using archaeology and conservation to demonstrate what they say is their own unique connection to the Holy Land.

The Palestinian Authority, recognized a decade ago by the United Nations as a nonmember observer state, welcomed the designation of Tell es-Sultan.

President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that it “testifies to the authenticity and history of the Palestinian people,” adding that “the state of Palestine is committed to preserving this unique site for the benefit of mankind.”

Paris-based UNESCO began the World Heritage List in 1978. It includes a broad array of over 1,000 sites — from the Acropolis in Athens to the Great Wall of China — nominated by their respective nations.

Prior to the vote, Likud MK Dan Ilouz told UNESCO President Audrey Azoulay that declaring old Jericho as “Palestinian” was both religiously offensive and historically inaccurate.

“This is not only an insult to Jews, but also an insult to Christians around the world who admire the site for its biblical history,” Illouz wrote.

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“The Palestinian Authority is systematically working to erase all ties of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. This is evident on the Temple Mount, where valuable archaeological findings were destroyed, as well as throughout Judea and Samaria, where acts of vandalism and deliberate destruction of biblical evidence frequently occur.

“It is our duty to stop this and insist on our right to our country against enemies at home and abroad,” he added.

“UNESCO must recognize the ancient history of the Land of Israel and preserve its history without distorting it for political purposes. Actions like these undermine the organization’s credibility and more importantly harm the State of Israel.”

According to the Bible, the Jews first crossed into Israel after the Exodus from Egypt and wandering in the Sinai Desert for 40 years at Jericho.