U.N. Adds Site Near Palestinian City of Jericho to World Heritage List

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean
Tell es-Sultan archaeological near Jericho, West Bank, site is seen Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.

A U.N. committee voted Sunday to recognize ruins near the West Bank city of Jericho as a World Heritage site, a move that drew backlash from Israel, which has clashed with the United Nations in the past over designations in the Palestinian territories.

The vote was held at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee, overseen by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural protection agency, in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It added the prehistoric site of “Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan (State of Palestine),” including a nearby spring, to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, raising the number of inscribed Palestinian sites to four.

The area is in the occupied West Bank, which Israel seized along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Jericho is administered by the Palestinian Authority, which nominated the site.

“The natural resources and strategic location of Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan made it . . . a major node of human development for millennia,” the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry wrote in an executive summary for the committee. “Today’s residents drink water from the same springs and irrigate the same fields” as the dwellers of ancient Jericho.

The city is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited places, having attracted a permanent settlement as early as the 9th millennium B.C. Excavations there have unearthed traces of Neolithic populations and materials from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages.

But Israel, which has nine listed heritage sites, objected to the designation Sunday.

In a statement carried by Israeli media, the Foreign Ministry said the decision was “another sign of the Palestinians’ cynical use of UNESCO” and their “politicization of the organization.”

Israel quit UNESCO in 2019 after the agency described a shrine in the biblical city of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site that was “in danger.” The site, known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is located in Hebron’s Old Town and dates to the 1st century A.D. It is important in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Israeli officials accused UNESCO of downplaying Jewish ties to the Holy Land. But Israel has remained a party to the World Heritage Convention, and it sent a delegation to the meeting in Riyadh on Sept. 10.

The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and was the first public visit by Israeli officials to Saudi Arabia. The two countries are in talks to normalize relations, with the support of the United States.

Other Persian Gulf countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have established diplomatic ties with Israel. But Riyadh has stalled, insisting that Israel and the Palestinians first agree to a two-state solution.

UNESCO designations have long been complicated by politics and conflict. The agency’s role is to identify, protect and preserve sites that are naturally or culturally significant. The selection process has come under fire in other places such as Syria and Kashmir.

In the Palestinian territories, UNESCO had previously designated three other sites: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem; the Battir hill landscape of grapevines and olive trees; and the Old Town in Hebron.