The Palestinians hailed Friday’s granting by UNESCO of world heritage status to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem as an “historic day for justice.”
“This global recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people is a victory for our cause and for justice,” president Mahmud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
“This decision shows that it’s natural that the world is with us and recognises the rights of the Palestinian people and the state of Palestine,” he said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called it “a historic day.”
Erakat told AFP the decision was “another step on the long road towards worldwide recognition of the state of Palestine within 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital.”
UNESCO, the United Nations cultural body, overrode Israeli objections to urgently grant world heritage status to the church worshipped as the birthplace of Jesus.
The 13-6 secret vote in Russia’s Saint Petersburg to add the Church of the Nativity and its pilgrimage route to the prestigious list was received with rousing applause and a celebratory fist pump by the Palestinian delegation chief.
Israel’s premier said the decision proved the UN organisation was motivated by politics.
“This decision proves that UNESCO is motivated by political motives, not cultural ones,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
“Rather than progressing towards peace, the Palestinians are resorting to unilateral moves that push it farther away.”
Israel’s foreign ministry poured scorn on the decision.
“What we saw today was truly the theatre of the absurd,” said ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, condemning the Palestinians for “excessive politicisation” of UNESCO.
Israel’s delegate in Saint Petersburg said the Jewish state supported awarding world heritage status to the church under a completely different procedure that carried no implications for the Middle East peace process.
“The decision taken now was totally political and does great damage in our opinion to the (UN) convention and its image,” the delegate charged.
Israel said the “emergency basis” status essentially meant that the United Nations as a world body was backing the Palestinian view that the church was threatened by Israeli troops.
In Bethlehem, the municipality organised a celebration in Manger Square in the heart of the biblical city.
“It’s a magnificent surprise,” Aziz Allawa, a Palestinian Catholic priest from the nearby Beit Sahur parish, told AFP of the UNESCO listing.
Omar Awadallah, an official at the Palestinian foreign ministry’s multilateral relations unit, said: “It is the first time Palestine has exercised its sovereign right as a nation.”
Earlier Hanan Ashrawi, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, issued a statement calling the decision “a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land.”
She said it came “in spite of the Israeli occupation and all its prejudicial measures.”
The Palestinian bid had faced serious hurdles, including the continued opposition of the United States and Israel, a negative report from the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO and, reportedly, domestic disagreements.
Washington’s mission to UNESCO headquarters said in a statement it was “profoundly disappointed by the decision.”
Ashrawi’s statement said: “The Palestinian people are celebrating this decision as a moment of national pride and affirmation of their rich and unique heritage and identity.
“Situated in the heart of the occupied Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity and the pilgrimage route are sites of enormous universal significance, not just to Christendom but also to humanity as a whole.”
Ziad Bandak, who serves as an adviser on Christian affairs to Abbas, told AFP he was “delighted because we exercised our sovereignty in choosing the site.”
He stressed that the vote had been secured “despite attempts by Israel and its allies to put up obstacles.”
The bid — the first since the Palestinians won controversial membership of UNESCO in October 2011 — was submitted “on an emergency basis” because the Palestinians say urgent restoration work to the church is needed.\