Ancient Palestinian site near Jericho added to UNESCO World Heritage list

Al-Jazeera  /  September 17, 2023

Tell al-Sultan is an oval-shaped tell, or mound, in the Jordan Valley, and contains prehistoric evidence of human activity.

A United Nations committee has voted to list prehistoric ruins near the ancient city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank as a World Heritage Site in Palestine.

The decision, which has been criticized by Israel, was made at a meeting of the UN World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Sunday under the auspices of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

The listing refers to the Tell al-Sultan archaeological site nearby, which contains prehistoric ruins dating back to the ninth millennium BC and is outside the ancient city itself.

“A permanent settlement had emerged here by the 9th to 8th millennium BC due to the fertile soil of the oasis and easy access to water,” UNESCO said on its website.

Tell al-Sultan, an oval-shaped mound, contains evidence of one of humanity’s first-known villages and an important Bronze-Age town dating back to 2,600 BC.

It is around 2km (1.2 miles) from the remains of the first city of Jericho, which contains ruins of importance to Jewish history, including a synagogue dating back to the first century BC.

Jericho is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, and is in a part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that is administered by the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.

Israel criticizes decision

Israel’s foreign ministry released a statement Sunday denouncing the decision, calling it a “cynical ploy”.

“The foreign ministry considers today’s decision another sign of the cynical use the Palestinians are making of UNESCO and the organization’s politicization,” the statement said.

“Israel will act with its many friends in the organization to change the flawed decisions made.”

Israel quit the UN organization in 2019 over accusations that it fosters an anti-Israel bias, but did send a delegation to this year’s meeting in Saudi Arabia.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories for a future state.

There have been no serious or substantive peace negotiations in over a decade, and Israel is currently led by one of the most far-right, nationalist governments in its history, making any move towards Palestinian statehood appear extremely unlikely.

Historical heritage has long been among the many flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides using archaeology and conservation to demonstrate what they say is their own unique connection to the Holy Land.

The Palestinian Authority, recognized a decade ago by the United Nations as a nonmember observer state, welcomed the designation of Tell al-Sultan.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that it “testifies to the authenticity and history of the Palestinian people”, adding that “the state of Palestine is committed to preserving this unique site for the benefit of mankind”.