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A West Bank Bid For Heritage Claims Holy Land

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Palestinian officials are throwing a party in the West Bank this weekend to celebrate what they call a national victory. The United Nations' cultural body, UNESCO, accepted a Palestinian request to recognize an important Bethlehem church as an endangered World Heritage site.

But Israel says the Palestinians are exploiting a historical site for political gain, and this latest struggle over historical sites in the Holy Land is just beginning.

Making The List

For millions of believers around the world, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the ultimate heritage site. It's one of world's oldest functioning churches and marks the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.

For Palestinian tour guides like Adel Dweib, having this sacred site in their own backyard is a badge of honor. For Palestinian leaders, it's also a political opportunity.

After the Palestinians won membership last fall in UNESCO, they submitted an emergency request to get the church on the UN's List of World Heritage in Danger. A UNESCO team of experts inspected the site, noting a leaky roof but concluding the site wasn't in danger. Still, the Palestinians stuck to their emergency request, and they won.

For the Palestinians, it's another symbolic step toward international acceptance as an independent state.

"We're not trying to portray it as political issue. But indeed it is an achievement on our long way to achieve our right to self-determination," Palestinian political adviser Xavier Abu Eid says.

Church clergy were against the move. They were afraid of letting politicians meddle on their turf. The U.S. and Israel also objected.

"This really was far more the Palestinians looking to score a few political points than the need to recognize heritage sites," says Paul Hirschson, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Claims To The Same Site

Preserving historic sites has long been a national priority for Israel. Biblical sites that point to a Jewish past aren't just good for tourism. For Israelis, they justify why their country deserves to exist in the first place.

Now that the Palestinians are trying to build a state, they're also seeking to claim sites as part of their own heritage. The problem is Israelis and Palestinians are fighting over many of the same sites, like Mount Gerizim.

It's an archaeological site with panoramic views of the surrounding West Bank hills. The biblical Samaritans built their temple on this site, where Samaritans still pray today. Half of the community lives in Israel. The rest are here. They speak Arabic and attend Palestinian schools.

Palestinians see the Samaritans as proof of their own deep roots in this land. Officials are asking UNESCO to deem this mountain — along with a list of 20 other West Bank sites — as belonging to Palestinian heritage.

But the crisp, new Israeli flags whipping in the wind make it abundantly clear who's the boss here. A few days ago, Israel declared this site a national park.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said the Palestinian Authority claims this site as its own in order to deny Israel's biblical rights to the Holy Land.

"Our response," he said, "is to develop and invest in this place."

Then, the high priest of the tiny Samaritan community — an old man in a red turban — got up to bless the crowd.

Samaritan elder Yefet Cohen said he hopes this place can serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. But Mount Gerizim, he said, shouldn't be a tourist trap; it's a holy site.

In the Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war over heritage sites, it's often the custodians who've looked after these places for centuries who feel the uncomfortable pull.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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