Israeli authorities have refused to grant entry visas for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) investigative team scheduled to conduct a field visit to the Old City in the southern occupied West Bank district of Hebron in advance of an upcoming vote next month to consider the area an endangered world heritage site, Israeli media reported on Sunday.
While Palestinian authorities had planned to introduce the site for consideration on UNESCO's World Heritage List for 2018, they decided to fast track the site's application owing to routine Israeli violence in the Old City, which Palestinians have claimed threatens the integrity of the site, and instead propose the area as an endangered site.
A Palestinian delegation to UNESCO had reportedly expressed the "alarming details about the Israeli violations in Al-Khalil/ Hebron, including the continuous acts of vandalism, property damage, and other attacks," in a letter to the World Heritage Centre.
Since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967 and began advancing Israeli settlements across Palestinian territory in violation of international law, Hebron has been a flashpoint for Israeli settler violence on Palestinians and their properties.
The Ibrahimi Mosque, known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the Old City where the Prophet Abraham is believed to be buried has been a focal point of such violence for decades, as the site is holy to both Muslims and Jews and has been a prime site for Israeli settler activities in the area.
The UNESCO team's visit is aimed at assessing whether or not the Old City of Hebron is actually endangered, and would submit these findings to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a body that provides recommendations to UNESCO involving sites that could be considered on the World Heritage in Danger list.
Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen denounced what he considered "Palestinian political moves under the guise of culture and heritage," and added that UNESCO's consideration of the site represented "lies that plot against the state of Israel as well as the history and the connection of the Jewish people to this important holy site." He cited this as the reason for rejecting the delegation's entry.
The Old City, which is under full Israeli military control, is home to some 30,000 Palestinians and around 800 Israeli settlers who live under the protection of Israeli forces.
UNESCO is scheduled to decide on the status of the Old City during a conference in Krakow, Poland from July 2-12. The vote is expected to include a clause rejecting Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980 in a move never recognised by the international community.