The Associated Press
June 29, 2012 Friday 07:05 PM GMT

Palestinians: UN heritage nod is political victory

By DALIA NAMMARI and KARIN LAUB, Associated Press

The Palestinians on Friday persuaded the U.N. cultural agency to list
the Church of the Nativity the place where Christians believe Jesus
was born as an endangered World Heritage site despite misgivings by
churches in charge of the basilica.

The Palestinians hailed the nod by UNESCO as a step forward in their
quest for global recognition of an independent Palestine in the West
Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967.

The centuries-old basilica is located in a part of the
Israeli-occupied West Bank where the Palestinians have self-rule.
UNESCO's decision was seen by them as validation of their rights to
the territory.

"We are ecstatic," Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said of
Friday's 13-6 by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, meeting in St.
Petersburg, Russia.

The Palestinians had argued that the shrine faces imminent danger,
both because of overdue repairs and Israel's continued occupation of
the West Bank.

Israel and the U.S. strongly opposed the emergency bid, arguing that
the church is not under threat, a position backed by a U.N. experts

Israeli officials have said they don't object to the church being
listed, but reject the "endangered" label which implies culpability of
Israel, which in practice remains the ultimate sovereign in the West

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians are
"engaging in unilateral actions that only distance peace" and that
UNESCO is driven by political considerations.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said the Palestinians now plan
to submit more sites in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The
new bids could stir more political tensions, particularly in east
Jerusalem, which Israel annexed to its capital after the 1967 war.

Ashrawi said Friday's vote is the beginning of a process.

"Our identity, our place in civilization, in history, are being
recognized, are beginning to be safeguarded in the face of the Israeli
occupation's encroachment, the confiscation of our land, our culture,"
she said.

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Washington was
"profoundly disappointed" by the vote. The U.S. has been trying to
block the Palestinian recognition campaign, and withdrew tens of
millions of dollars in funding from UNESCO after the Paris-based
agency accepted the Palestinians as a state member last year.

Joining UNESCO was part of a wider Palestinian attempt to win global
recognition for a state of Palestine in the territories Israel
occupied in 1967.

Israelis and Palestinians were to have negotiated the borders of a
Palestinian state, but two decades of intermittent talks produced no
results. The last round broke off in 2008, and the Israeli and
Palestinian leaders have failed to agree on rules for renewing them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads a self-rule government
in charge of 38 percent of the West Bank, says negotiations with
Israel remain his preferred choice, but wants global recognition to
improve his leverage. An attempt to win full U.N. membership has
stalled, but meanwhile Palestinians are pushing for membership in U.N.

In their first move at UNESCO, they submitted the Nativity Church and
a nearby pilgrimage route as endangered heritage sites, asking to
fast-track the nomination rather than go through the normal 18-month

They argued that the church is in urgent need of repairs, particularly
a leaky wooden roof. Palestinian officials said foreign donors
promised $20 million for the work, but so far have paid only $3
million, not enough to get started.

Palestinians argued that Israel's continued control over the area also
threatens the site.

A decade ago, when Israel launched a major offensive against
Palestinian militants, the church was caught in the crossfire:
Palestinian gunmen holed up inside for more than a month, with Israeli
tanks and troops surrounding the shrine.

Referring to the violent standoff in Friday's statement, Netanyahu put
the blame on the Palestinians.

"The world needs to remember that the Church of the Nativity that is
so sacred to Christianity was desecrated in the past by Palestinian
terrorists," he said.

Today, Bethlehem is ringed on three sides by walls of cement slabs and
fences of Israel's separation barrier to Israel a defense against
Palestinians militants, and to Palestinians a blatant land grab
disguised as a security measure.

A U.N. experts committee recommended that the Palestinians go through
the normal procedure, instead of seeking the "endangered" label, but
the Palestinians refused to withdraw the bid.

The churches in charge of the shrine Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox
and Armenian also expressed concern, apparently fearing a World
Heritage designation would lead to interference by the Palestinian
government and the U.N.

The church is run according to a 19th century codex, known as the
Status Quo which assigns responsibilities for upkeep that are
jealously guarded by each denomination.

Palestinian officials say they've addressed the concerns by the churches.

In Bethlehem's Manger Square, next to the shrine, reaction was
relatively muted Friday.

A celebration organized by local officials only brought several dozen
people to the square, including youngsters in yellow T-shirts with the
inscription "I love Jesus."

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma'ayah said she hopes the new
heritage listing will bring more visitors. Currently, some 100,000
tourists come to Bethlehem every month.

Shop and hotel owners routinely complain they lose business because
Israeli-run tour buses stop in Bethlehem just long enough for a visit
to the church and then take pilgrims back to Jerusalem, a few
kilometers (miles) to the north. During a recent visit, most shops on
Star Street, part of the pilgrimage route, were closed.

Nabil Ziacaman, a souvenir shop owner, said Friday's vote is a step
toward recognizing a state of Palestine, but won't help his business.
"Everyone in the world knows the Church of the Nativity and where it
is located," he said. The new label "won't bring more tourism."

Christina Yacoub, 20, from Lakeland, Florida, was more enthusiastic.
Emerging from the church, said she expected more pilgrims now. The
vote "shows how important this country is."

Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank. Associated Press writer Aron
Heller in Jerusalem and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed reporting.

From: Baghdasarian