A Cabinet-level committee has added 16 new national heritage sites, including two in the Golan Heights and Herod’s tomb in Gush Etzion. Foreign media immediately tried to turn the decision into a political act.
The Ministerial Committee on the National Heritage Plan approved the new sites on Tuesday, with a budget of NIS 91.1 million ($28 million), at a meeting held at the Ben Tzvi Institute in Jerusalem, which also was added to the list of heritage sites. The committee decided to include the projects on a list of 150 sites and initiatives included in the "Plan for Renovating and Strengthening National Heritage Sites and Assets. The plan is designed to preserve the heritage of the Jewish People in its Land.
"The heritage project is one that we owe ourselves, our children and future generations,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who heads the committee. “We are not here by chance. The story of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, the story of Zionism, the story of our cultural and historical heritage, and our unique link to this Land, find expression in sites that were clear to me, and I am sure to my older friends as well, when we were children. To my regret, these same sites have become run down and therefore, we have decided to renovate them and thus restore them to the center of our cultural awareness.”
The archaeological sites, structures and sites in need of preservation, museums, archives and memorials include Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The Ben Tzvi Institute, where the committee met, is the site of a wooden cabin used by the second President of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi.
Also on the list were two archeological sites in the Golan Heights and one in the Judean Hills, south of Jerusalem. All three are familiar to millions of tourists, but at least one foreign news agency implied that their inclusion on the list was a political decision because they are located in areas that are ”occupied.”
The Golan Heights have been a legal part of Israel for 30 years, but most international media still refer to it as “the occupied Golan.” One of the sites is Umm el-Kanitar, where archaeological excavations have revealed a Roman-era Jewish city and synagogue.
The other is on Gamla, a camel hump-shaped hill in the Golan that includes the remains of an ancient Jewish city and which was the site of the 1st century CE Jewish revolt against Roman conquerors. Gamla is a symbol of heroism for the modern State of Israel.
A third site is Herodian, the site of Herod’s palace in eastern Gush Etzion and a popular site for foreign tourists as well as Israelis.
The French news service AFP made a special effort to single out the three sites, noting they are in areas claimed by Syria and the Palestinian Authority.
Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser commented, "It's amusing that every time the heritage issue is raised, we have to apologize and explain. There's some sort of media expectation that Israel will carry out a Taliban-style act.
“The tomb complex of Herod himself was found there, a chamber with rare frescoes. If these things are not cared for they will disappear from the face of the earth. Any reasonable person, any international community which appreciates cultural heritage, would be obliged to do this. It has nothing to do with the diplomatic agenda.”
The Committee on Heritage Sites raised a storm earlier this year by including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron as a heritage site. The Cave is the burial place of the Jewish forefathers Abraham, Yitzchak (Isaac) and Yaakov (Jacob) and their wives Sarah, Rivkah and Leah. The site is the first-ever recorded purchase in the Bible, which relates that Abraham bought it for “400 pieces of silver” to bury his wife Sarah.
The Arab world claims the site is Muslim, and during the Jordanian occupation between 1949 and 1967, Jews were not allowed to visit. After Judea and Samaria were restored to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, the government opened the site to Jews and to Muslims. Similarly, it removed the Jordanian restriction against Christians visiting their holy sites.