Abed Abu Eisha was watching the news on Friday evening when he learned that the United Nations’ cultural arm had recognised his home city, the Old City of Hebron, as a Palestinian World Heritage Site.
The next afternoon, perched on a chair outside a clothing store on the edge of the Old City, the 22-year-old broke into a broad grin as he discussed the historic decision.
“Of course, I’m happy,” Abu Eisha said. “When you see your culture being recognised by the whole world, it means a lot.
“We are so small, a small people,” he added. “Nobody sees our lives or culture; nobody sees how we live here, so to have this global recognition is special.”
Hebron’s Old City includes an ancient holy site that Muslims refer to as the Ibrahimi Mosque and Jews call the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Believed to be the burial place of Abraham, the site has a special significance both for Jews and for Muslims, who constructed the mosque in the 14th century.
The UNESCO ruling also placed Hebron’s Old City on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger, meaning that it will be eligible for extra funding and a UN team will be sent to evaluate it annually.
The largest city in the occupied West Bank, Hebron is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians. Its Old City is home to a few thousand Palestinians and also a few hundred religiously motivated Jewish settlers living under the protection of the Israeli military.
Palestinians who live, work or worship in the Old City face harsh conditions as a result of the Israeli military presence, including restrictions on freedom of movement and harassment by settlers.
The Ibrahimi Mosque is one of the most tightly controlled locations in the Old City, with Israeli military checkpoints installed throughout the area. The building itself was partitioned by Israel into a mosque and synagogue in the mid-1990s after the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Palestinians during prayers at the mosque.
Today, there are separate entrances for Jews and Muslims, each guarded by a cluster of Israeli soldiers, who inquire about visitors’ religions and prevent Muslims or Jews from visiting each other’s half of the building.
On a street adjacent to the holy site, Khaled Mohammed’s ceramics business is located between two Israeli military checkpoints. He told Al Jazeera that his father had moved to the building in 1964, three years before the Israeli military occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“Business is bad in Hebron,” he said, pointing to a row of long-shuttered shops on the street. “I’m happy with the UNESCO heritage decision. Will it change anything? I’m not so sure. Since when did Israel listen to the UN? They don’t care.
“But it’s good – I feel like it is recognition for us,” he added hopefully. “Maybe with the UNESCO decision – just maybe – more tourists will come to visit the city.”
Twelve states on UNESCO’s World Heritage committee voted in favour of the Palestinian proposal to name the city a heritage site, while three countries voted against the move and six abstained. The proposal was accepted despite intense lobbying from Israel and the United States to prevent the resolution from passing.
Israel reacted furiously to the decision and announced it would cut $1m in funding to the UN that would be diverted to Israeli cultural projects in Hebron. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “another delusional decision by UNESCO” and charged that by naming it a Palestinian heritage site, UNESCO had denied Jewish ties to the site.
In a statement accompanying the decision, UNESCO noted that the Ibrahimi Mosque compound was “built in the first century CE to protect the tombs of the patriarch Abraham/Ibrahim and his family. This place has become a site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Alaa Shahin, who led the team behind the Palestinian submission, told Al Jazeera that “the Ibrahimi Mosque is universally important, not just for Palestinians”.
“Palestinians believe that our mission is to preserve it,” he said. “We are happy to have this responsibility to preserve human culture on our land.”
Shahin said the resolution was necessary to preserve Hebron’s Old City, where Israeli military control has led to the closure of more than 500 shops and the installation of dozens of blockades that restrict freedom of movement.
“It is affecting the quality of life, economic life, the ability to provide public services and it is affecting our ability to preserve heritage,” he added. “Now, UNESCO is our partner in having responsibility to preserve the Old City. We hope they will be active on the ground to remove the checkpoints, to open the closed shops and the closed roads.”