JERUSALEM, Israel -- If the Palestinian Authority succeeds in its bid for full membership in UNESCO -- the cultural arm of the United Nations -- it will then plan to seek World Heritage status for a number of Christian and Jewish holy sites.
Last week, UNESCO's board decided to allow its members to vote on upgrading the P.A. from observer to full member status. The decision, denounced by the U.S. and Israel, would in effect give the Palestinian Authority a leg up on its declaration of unilateral statehood.
P.A. Minister Dr. Hamdan Taha said they intend to start by resubmitting Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity for World Heritage status, followed by Hebron and Nablus (biblical Shechem) and other historical sites.
Earlier this year, UNESCO rejected the P.A.'s nomination of these two sites because of its observer, rather than member, status.
"We will call on the World Heritage Committee to activate this application," Taha said, according to Reuters. "We expect after Bethlehem, other sites will follow."
Hebron is home to the Machpelah, or Cave of the Patriarchs, so named because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, were buried there. Rachel, Jacob's second wife, was buried just outside Bethlehem.
According to Genesis 23, Abraham purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels to bury his beloved Sarah. Later, Isaac and Rebecca and their son, Jacob and his wife, Leah, were also buried there.
In 2010, UNESCO declared Rachel's Tomb a mosque and called for it and the Machpelah to be removed from Israel's list of World Heritage sites.
In March 2010, the Obama administration and Arab nations criticized Israel for its intention to refurbish these two biblical sites.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not bow to the pressure.
"The Cave of the Patriarchs is one of the first sites of the Jewish people's heritage," Netanyahu said during a speech at the Knesset. "The Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb have been part of our heritage for 4,000 years."
Palestinian Arabs have also laid claim to Tel Balata, now located in Shechem.
Here, Jacob purchased land for his family. And here, the children of Israel buried Joseph's bones, carried with them from Egypt.
Taha said UNESCO membership would "allow Palestine to actively participate in protecting cultural heritage in the Palestinian territories," Reuters reported.
That has not been the case with Joseph's Tomb, another Jewish holy site, near Shechem, which has been desecrated repeatedly over the years.
Over the weekend, Israeli soldiers preparing the site for Israelis planning to visit during Yom Kippur found swastikas painted on the walls.
In April, a Palestinian policemen opened fire on Israeli passengers driving away from the site, killing Ben Yosef Chai, 24, nephew of Likud Minister Limor Livnat, and wounding four others.