Visitors on a tour held by left-wing NGO "Breaking the Silence" walk down Shuhada street in the West Bank city of Hebron, April 19, 2017.
Visitors on a tour held by left-wing NGO "Breaking the Silence" walk down Shuhada street in the West Bank city of Hebron, April 19, 2017.

UNESCO on Friday declared the Old City of Hebron an endangered world heritage site, sparking outrage from Israel in a new spat with the Palestinians at the international body.

The UN's cultural arm voted 12 to three – with six abstentions – to give heritage status to Hebron's Old City in the occupied West Bank.

The Old City is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers, who live in a heavily fortified enclave near the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

"Just inscribed on @UNESCO #WorldHeritage List & World Heritage in Danger List: Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town," the organisation said on its official Twitter feed.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon immediately denounced the decision as "a moral blot," saying it denied Jewish history in the city.

"This irrelevant organisation promotes FAKE HISTORY. Shame on @UNESCO," he wrote on Twitter after the decision taken in a secret ballot by the World Heritage Committee meeting in Krakow.

Brought by the Palestinians, the resolution declared Hebron's Old City, including areas where settlers live, to be an area of outstanding universal value.

Symbol of the conflict

The city is home to the imposing Tomb of the Patriarchs, the resting place of key Biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and one of the most important religious sites to Muslims and Jews alike.

Hebron is also a stark symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The few hundred Israelis live closed off in several small settlements most of the world considers illegal, with Palestinians largely banned from entering and using nearby streets.

The Israelis living in Hebron are protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, with Palestinians saying the settlements make their lives impossible.

'Shameful and offensive'

The UNESCO committee usually votes via a show of hands but for the Hebron vote delegates placed sealed envelopes in a box after Croatia, Poland and Jamaica requested the secret ballot.

But the form of the vote prompted a heated discussion and even required the committee chairman to call in security at one point.

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, tweeted: "@UNESCO's attempt to sever the ties between Israel and Hebron is shameful & offensive."

"This is an ugly display of discrimination & an act of aggression against the Jewish people. No @UN agency can disassociate our people from the burial grounds of our patriarchs & matriarchs."

By listing sites on the UN cultural organisation's World Heritage in Danger list, UNESCO seeks to mobilise the international community to protect them.

Adding a site to the list allows the allocation of immediate World Heritage Fund assistance to the endangered property and alerts the international community in the hope it will join efforts to save the endangered sites.

The committee also decided this week to add the historic centre of Vienna to its list of sites in danger due to a high-rise project but chose to keep Australia's Great Barrier Reef off the list despite concern over coral bleaching.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies