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This Week in Palestine
By Dr. Hamdan Taha and Ahmed Rjoob
Following the events of April 2002 in Palestine, especially the prolonged siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the destruction of significant historical buildings in the old core of the city of Nablus during the Israeli incursions, the World Heritage Committee, at its 26th session in Budapest (June 2002), expressed its concern over possible further destruction and damage to Palestinian heritage. On that occasion, the Committee emphasized the exceptional universal value of Palestinian heritage, encouraged the relevant authorities to take appropriate measures for its protection and decided to provide financial support for the implementation of this task.
In October 2002 a UNESCO mission, composed of Francesco Bandarin, Director of the World Heritage Centre (WHC) and Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Arab States Unit at WHC, visited Palestine to evaluate the general status of cultural heritage. The mission met with officials from the Palestinian Authority and various stakeholders from local institutions and also visited some of the most significant heritage sites in Palestine. Subsequently, a work plan was discussed, delineating possible modalities for the implementation of the World Heritage Committee's Decision in Palestine, with specific focus on the preparation of the inventory of the cultural and natural heritage sites, the assessment of the state of conservation of some selected sites and training activities to introduce Palestinian experts to the objectives and procedures of the World Heritage Convention. The whole work plan focuses on the familiarization with the mechanism of the World Heritage Convention, as contained in its Operational Guidelines.
Since the approval of the work plan and the appointment of a Programme Specialist at the UNESCO office in Ramallah, as recommended by the WHC mission, a number of activities have been implemented. A training workshop on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention was organized at ICCROM in Rome in September 2003 for sixteen Palestinian experts in cultural and natural heritage. The foremost aim of the workshop was to make the participants familiar with the terminologies and procedures of the World Heritage Convention, including the preparation of tentative lists and nomination files. Afterwards, most of the trainees were involved in the preparation of the Palestinian inventory of cultural and natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value and related activities. Abundant support and consultation have been offered to the trained experts by the coordinators, namely the Director-General of Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage and the UNESCO Programme Specialist at the Ramallah office, who ensured close coordination with the Arab States Unit at the World Heritage Centre and the Palestinian Permanent Observer Mission to UNESCO. A second workshop, attended by the same specialists, focusing on the preparation of nomination dossiers and site management, was organized jointly by ICCROM and UNESCO, in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, in Bethlehem in July 2004.
In order to establish this first inventory, a series of consultative meetings took place at the national level with experts and coordinators in order to identify the short list of proposed sites. Twenty sites were chosen out of more than sixty proposed ones. The inventory identifies cultural and natural sites that meet the criteria and requirements for the inscription on the World Heritage list set by the Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. It also reflects the priorities outlined in 1994 by the global strategy for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Five missions of international consultants have been organized with the purpose of examining the state of conservation of sites and providing advice on management. Dr. Ray Bondin, Assistant of the Secretary-General of ICOMOS International, assessed the state of conservation of Umayyad architecture at Hisham's Palace in Jericho; Prof. Santelli and Prof. Revault, from the University of Paris, carried out an assessment for the state of conservation of the three historic cities included in the inventory: Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus; Prof. Peter Fowler, World Cultural Heritage specialist from the UK, undertook two mission to Palestine aiming at visiting the sites, reviewing the draft inventory and providing his valuable expertise to ensure that this work meets the criteria of the World Heritage Convention. During his second mission, aimed at reviewing the final draft of the inventory, Fowler was accompanied by Marc Patry, WHC Programme Specialist with expertise in natural heritage, who assessed the three natural sites included in this list.
To promote the importance of Palestinian heritage, the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage organized seven one-day consultative workshops for awareness-raising in different Palestinian localities, mainly targeting representatives of the local governments and other relevant decision-makers. The overarching aim of these workshops was to raise public awareness of the World Heritage Convention and to engage the local communities in the debate, drawing their attention to planning and protection measures required to safeguard the outstanding universal value of the selected sites. In the same spirit, and in order to broaden the awareness on the importance of cultural and natural sites in Palestine, the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage signed an agreement with the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation to produce documentaries for each site included in this publication.
In addition to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, which was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981, the inventory of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of potential outstanding universal value in Palestine consists of 20 sites (17 cultural and 3 natural ones) that reflect the cultural and natural diversity of Palestine. The sites were selected by the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities through a consultative process that involved Palestinian experts from different public and private institutions, with the technical assistance of the UNESCO office in Ramallah. The sites include Bethlehem, ancient Jericho, the old town of Hebron, the Dead Sea, Sebastia, the Umayyad palaces, and the Wadi Gaza coastal wetlands, among others.
The list reflects the cultural and natural diversity of Palestine. The wealth of the exceptional archaeological, historical and spiritual values places Palestinian culture within the setting of human history.
Dr. Hamdan Taha is the Director-General of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage and Ahmed Rjoob is the Director of the Department of Site Management at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.