Palestinians to submit 20 sites for UNESCO listing

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Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque or the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the southern West Bank city's old quarter
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Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque or the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the southern West Bank city's old quarter

The Palestinians are poised to submit the names of 20 sites in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for addition to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites, an official said on Thursday.

"Within the next few days, we will submit a tentative list of 20 sites to be added to the list," Omar Awadallah, head of the UN department at the Palestinian foreign ministry, told AFP.

Palestine was accepted as a full member state of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation last year, over objections from Israel and the United States, and despite not having full United Nations membership.

But its tenure as a full UNESCO member came into force on Thursday, and diplomats now plan to move quickly to register Palestinian sites.

"From today we are a full party as a state so now we can start all the things that states can do within the rules of the convention, one of them is that we can submit our list to the World Heritage committee," he said.

Until now, the Palestinians could not formally submit any sites in the Palestinian territories for inclusion in the list.

The tentative list that will be submitted is the first step in the process of obtaining World Heritage status for the sites, and is intended as an inventory of the locations a member wishes to register, UNESCO says.

The list includes sites ranging from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to Hebron's walled Old City in the southern West Bank.

It also includes the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, as well as a series of aqueducts and Ummayad palaces, some of which are in Jerusalem.

Gaza sites on the list include the Wadi Gaza coastal wetlands and the Anthedon Harbour, according to a copy of the list seen by AFP.

The finalised list will be presented when the World Heritage Committee holds its annual meeting in June to discuss which sites to accept, Awadallah said.

The Old City of Jerusalem and its walls is already part of the list after it was nominated in 1982 by Jordan.

It is currently listed as an endangered site due to problems of uncontrolled urban development and the deterioration of its monuments due to tourism, the UNESCO website says.

Israel and the United States fiercely opposed Palestinian admission to UNESCO, with both cutting funding to the organisation in the wake of the decision.

There have been ongoing tensions between Israel, the Palestinians and UNESCO over several sites of cultural and religious significance in the West Bank.

In 2010, Israel reduced its cooperation with UNESCO after the organisation described Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem, as a mosque.

The tomb, built over what is believed to be the burial place of the biblical matriarch, is the third holiest site in Judaism, but also considered a holy place for Muslims.

In 2011, Israel announced plans to include Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron -- another shared Jewish and Muslim holy site -- in a national heritage restoration plan.

That decision was slammed by the Palestinians and criticised by UNESCO as "escalating tension" in the area.

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