Advocacy Spatial Analysis

The Palestinian Authority, UNESCO, and the Illusion of Triumph

By Ryvka Barnard

This article was originally posted on Jadaliyya, and is re-posted on with permission from the author.

Over one weekend, two seemingly incongruous sets of images dominated the news from Palestine: one set displayed local tourism operators and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials in Bethlehem celebrating the designation of the Nativity Church as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other set of images, coming from Ramallah, showed PA police and thugs beating protestors, who had taken to the streets in anger over a scheduled (but later cancelled) Ramallah meeting between Israel’s Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The two sets of images together depict the sad and poignant reality of the occupation and the PA statehood bid. That reality is of an unelected and unrepresentative leadership, which is more committed to staging spectacles for the Israelis and Americans than resisting the occupation.

A few weeks ago, the Palestinian representative to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) submitted a file for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to be added to the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger,” and to the consternation of Israel and the United States, it was accepted. In October 2011, Palestine’s admission to UNESCO as a full member took place in the context of the controversial statehood bid, prompting the United States to withdraw funding from the organization. The Church of the Nativity’s addition to the list is the first result of the Palestinian admission to UNESCO. It was hailed by the PA and many supporters of Palestinian rights as a great victory, and even, according to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, “a triumph of justice.” Israeli and American officials frowned and expressed disapproval, adding fuel to the notion that this move was somehow deeply controversial and even an act of resistance. If only that had been the case.

Last fall, critics of the statehood bid warned that it was a PA move to retain power, to further disenfranchise Palestinians not under PA jurisdiction, and to create an international spectacle of the PA as a resistance force. Some astutely observed that the statehood bid could be redeemable if it resulted in using increased status in international forums to challenge Israel’s violations of international law. Unfortunately, the choice of the Church of the Nativity as the first site to recognize is nothing but a restatement of the status quo of occupation, and will likely be meaningless, if not destructive, to Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Stebunik, Wikimedia Commons)

The Church of the Nativity sits squarely in Area A, one of the small parts of the West Bank that is under full PA control (that is, control under occupation). It is visited by millions of foreign tourists every year, the great majority of whom are bussed in from their hotels in Jerusalem, past the apartheid wall, past the refugee camps, past the recently destroyed homes and businesses. The tourists are shuttled to an alternate reality in Manger Square, where they can see the ancient birthplace of Jesus without having to acknowledge that it is situated in a city, a city with people in it, people who are struggling under an ever-tightening occupation. Most tour operators carefully avoid any talk of politics or anything contemporary, not wanting to scare away these apparently delicate tourists.

Palestinian tourism operators all agree that at the end of the day, under the current conditions, the Church of the Nativity is a loss for Palestinian tourism. The tourism industry has a major leakage problem. This is not in reference to the leaky roof of the Church (a problem UNESCO will perhaps solve), but rather the fact that the tourism industry does not generate real income, and certainly not from visitors to the church. The money lost is money gained by the Israeli tourism industry. It is Israeli tour operators that meet groups in the airport while Palestinian tour operators wait for them behind the apartheid wall, hoping, usually to no avail, that they might spend more than an hour in the West Bank, and at least a few shekels, before leaving Bethlehem in a cloud of dust from their charter buses.

Of course, Palestinian tour operators that get any business related to the Church of the Nativity are the luckiest of the lot, particularly in comparison with tourism operations in the more rural parts of the West Bank, outside of the PA controlled enclaves. Area C, which is more than sixty percent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control, meaning that Palestinians have extremely limited access and no decision making over zoning in those areas. They cannot build or even renovate without an almost impossible to obtain permit from the Israelis, whether it is for a person to dig a well on her own personal property, or to renovate a historic site which could be used for tourism development. Because of the PA’s limited control in Area C, some sites, such as the historic ruins in Sebastiya, have sought international sponsorship in renovations, to at least make their projects a bit more visible lest they be quietly swallowed by Israeli expansion.

One fantastic tourism venture underway in the Bethlehem municipal area is in the village of Battir, which straddles the green line in the Jerusalem hills. Battir and its neighboring village of al Walaja are home to a vast spread of two-thousand-year-old Roman agricultural terraces, which include an intricate system of stone-lined channels that bring water from the village springs to cultivated plateaus. The beautiful landscape, which is not only the heritage but also the livelihood of these villages, is scheduled to be cut off from the villagers by the impending construction of the apartheid wall. The landscape would then be included into a “Green Park” fashioned by the Jewish National Fund, which has already begun to boast of how the landscape tells the story of agriculture and settlement in “the Land of Israel.” Both villages have been mobilizing tirelessly to halt the construction of the wall. In fact, Battir has already prepared a file on these landscapes in accordance with UNESCO standards, and won a UNESCO award for their conservation activities and promotion of preserving the ancient agricultural practices.

Battir (Suzy Harris-Brandts)

Battir (Suzy Harris-Brandts)

Battir, most of which is Area C, would have been an obvious choice for a site in imminent danger, and had the PA chosen to submit its file, as many believed that they would, it would have presented a case much more compelling. The imminent danger in Battir, and in other Area C projects which could have been prioritized, stems from the direct threat of the wall’s construction and its annexation of land. Prioritizing such sites would be a direct challenge to Israel’s expansionist policies. Such a move would have forced attention to the occupation’s ongoing destruction and its appropriation of Palestinian heritage and livelihood into Israel’s “green” spaces and municipal boundaries. It would have challenged Israel’s redrawing of borders, a process that attenuates Palestinian land on a minute-by-minute basis in Area C.

Under these conditions, one would have hoped and expected that sites in Area C would garner priority in the UNESCO recognition process. But predictably the PA chose the uncontroversial Church of the Nativity; predictably, Israel and the United States expressed disapproval; predictably, the PA scripted its deeply uncourageous choice as some sort of bold and defiant move.

I am not suggesting that the occupation could be ended with a simple formula of choosing one site over another for the top of a UNESCO list of heritage sites in danger. Nobody has any illusions about the limited role of the UNESCO membership in the broader scope of Palestinian politics. But this is precisely the point: that PA decisions and statements about culture and heritage cannot be understood without the political context in which they are made. This political context is a regime that will not directly challenge Israel, and believes that it should keep law, order, and security to continuously indicate that it is ready and capable for statehood. But “security” under occupation is in reality maintaining Israel’s security by force and eliminating any threat to the status quo through political repression. PA repression is not an occasional occurrence; it is a regular feature of the current regime’s efforts to maintain and build power in the small enclaves of the West Bank that Israel and the US have designated as expendable to Israel’s expansion. It can be seen through the control of the population using the US-trained PA security forces (Dayton’s men); through the neo-liberal policies of Salaam Fayyad, which attempt to disable collective resistance by drowning West Bank Palestinians with individualized debt. And it can be seen in every aspect of state planning and development: tourism and the heritage industry is no exception.

In the following days, while celebrations took place in the Manger Square bubble, PA thugs beat and arrested Palestinians in a show of force that demonstrated to Israel their willingness to act as bodyguards for the apartheid minister Mofaz. These scenes are tied together by the PA’s statehood bid. It is unclear what will be more deafening: the noise of the wall’s construction as it seals in al Walaja and Battir, or the racket of Abbas, Fayyad, and their cronies as they celebrate their triumph of justice at the UNESCO restored church. Maybe they will invite Mofaz as a guest of honor.

Ryvka Barnard is a PhD student in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University. Her research is focused on tourism in Palestine.