By Tom Perry
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinians will seek World Heritage status for the birthplace of Jesus once the U.N. cultural agency admits them as a full member, and will then nominate other sites on Israeli-occupied land for the same standing, an official said.
Hamdan Taha, a Palestinian Authority minister who deals with antiquities and culture, said UNESCO membership was the Palestinians' natural right. He described as "regrettable" the objections of some governments including the United States.
UNESCO's board decided last week to let member states vote on a Palestinian application for full membership, seen as part of a Palestinian drive opposed by Israel and the United States for recognition as a state in the U.N. system.
"UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?" Taha said. "I see it as crowning long efforts over the past 20 years."
He said that after gaining full UNESCO membership, the Palestinians will revive their bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus. The nomination was rejected this year because the Palestinians were not a full UNESCO member.
"This is a simple example of how Palestine has not been able to preserve its cultural heritage through the tools granted to every state in the world," Taha said.
"We will call on the World Heritage Committee to activate this application," said Taha. "We expect that after Bethlehem, other sites will follow."
These are likely to include Hebron, an ancient city home to a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, which is one of the most volatile spots in the West Bank.
The vote on Palestinian membership is expected at UNESCO's General Conference, which runs from October 25 to November 10. The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974.
The United States opposes the move, seeing it as part of a unilateral Palestinian bid to bypass the two-decade-old peace process. Washington says negotiations with Israel are the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their goal of statehood in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
UNESCO is the first U.N. agency to which the Palestinians have applied for full membership since President Mahmoud Abbas submitted their request to become a member state of the United Nations on September 23, also in the face of stiff U.S. opposition.
Israel's ambassador to UNESCO has condemned the move, saying politicizing UNESCO will undermine its ability to carry out its mandate.
HEBRON AMONG FUTURE CANDIDATES
But Taha described the Palestinians' motives as "purely cultural."
"This will allow Palestine to actively participate in protecting cultural heritage in the Palestinian territories," he said.
The territories where the Palestinians aim to found their state are home to a plethora of ancient sites, many of biblical significance, as well as sites of natural importance such as the Dead Sea.
Aside from Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has listed ancient pilgrimage routes and the West Bank towns of Nablus and Hebron among 20 cultural and natural heritage sites which Taha said could also be nominated as World Heritage Sites.
"We don't see UNESCO as a theater for confrontation but one that could build bridges," he said, adding that he had heard no Israeli objections to the bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem.
Yet issues of heritage can be as incendiary as any in the Middle East. Last year, violence erupted in Hebron following an Israeli decision to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in an Israeli state plan to rehabilitate Jewish and Zionist heritage sites.
"In the last year, there have been efforts to prepare a file for the nomination of the old city of Hebron, undertaken by the municipality of Hebron," Taha said.
"We think that every old city has the right to prepare a nomination file and we call on all sites and cities to take part in preparing files," he said.
"If we get over the obstacle of membership, of course these sites are candidates for the preparation of nomination files to be prepared for presentation to the World Heritage Committee."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)