The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Photo: Josh Lederman)

February 7, 2011
by Josh Lederman

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The Palestinian Authority announced Monday it has asked the U.N.’s cultural agency to designate the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ as the first world heritage site in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinians said in January they requested that UNESCO place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on its World Heritage List, which includes the world’s most important cultural sites.

However, only U.N. member states can nominate sites, calling into question the feasibility of the state-building measure.

No sites under Palestinian control are on currently the list. Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes said the PA has also requested to join the World Heritage Convention – another prerequisite to nominating sites – but that too requires U.N. member status.

The Palestinian Authority currently holds observer status in the U.N., but is not a full member. In recent months Palestinians have tried to move closer to full recognition by seeking a U.N. resolution denouncing Israeli settlements in areas they claim for a future state. They have also persuaded several South American nations to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remain at a standstill.

As part of an attempt to develop cultural institutions, Palestinians have developed an inventory of 20 sites that they say meet UNESCO’s criteria of outstanding universal value.

“It’s part and parcel with our plan to end the occupation and establish a state,” Daibes said.

The nomination is likely to be denied unless the U.N. recognizes Palestine before a committee votes on the site in mid-2012, but Palestinians hope Bethlehem’s overwhelming cultural significance will sway member states to find a loophole.

“I think we have many nations who are members who will submit it for us,” said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

UNESCO officials said nations cannot usually nominate sites that are not within their borders, but that the agency’s lawyers were still determining how to handle this unique circumstance.

The Bethlehem site includes the Nativity Complex, the Pilgrimage Route and a surrounding buffer zone. Municipal authorities worked with UNESCO and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation to prepare the site to meet the stringent technical requirements to become a World Heritage Site.

The Tourism Ministry has also started an application to nominate Hebron, a biblical city holy to both Jews and Muslims and believed to the resting place of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When UNESCO defined the Hebron site as a mosque in January, Israel was angered and said it would snub UNESCO inspectors set to visit the West Bank.