DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Palestinian officials are celebrating what they call a national victory this weekend in the West Bank. The United Nations' cultural body, UNESCO, accepted a Palestinian request to recognize an important Bethlehem church as an endangered World Heritage Site. Israel says the Palestinians are exploiting a historical venue for political gain. And as Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank, this latest struggle over historical sites in the Holy Land is only beginning.
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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: For millions of believers around the world, this is the ultimate heritage site. It's the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of world's oldest functioning churches. It marks the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.
ADEL DWEIB: I want you to look at the mosaic on the wall, which from the 12th century. That mosaic...
ESTRIN: For Palestinian tour guides like Adel Dweib, having this sacred site in their own backyard is a badge of honor. For Palestinian leaders, it's also a political opportunity. After the Palestinians won membership last fall in UNESCO, they submitted an emergency request to get the church on the U.N.'s list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian political advisor, points out damaged spots high up on the church's pillars.
XAVIER ABU EID: It's coming because of the leakage we have on the roof of the church.
ESTRIN: A UNESCO team of experts inspected the site. They noted the leaky roof but concluded the site wasn't in danger. Still, the Palestinians stuck to their emergency request, and they won. For the Palestinians, it's another symbolic step towards international acceptance as an independent state.
EID: We are not trying to portray as political issue. But indeed, it is an achievement on our long way to achieve our right of self-determination.
ESTRIN: Church clergy were against the move. They were afraid of letting politicians meddle in their turf. The U.S. and Israel also objected. Paul Hirschson is with the Israeli foreign ministry.
PAUL HIRSCHSON: This was really far more the Palestinians looking to score a few political points than the need to recognize heritage sites.
ESTRIN: Preserving historic sites has long been a national priority for Israel. Biblical sites pointing to a Jewish past aren't just good for tourism; for Israelis they justify why their country deserves to exist in the first place. Now that the Palestinians are trying to build a state, they're also seeking to claim sites as part of their own heritage. The problem is Israelis and Palestinians are fighting over many of the same sites, like Mount Gerizim.
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ESTRIN: It's an archaeological site with panoramic views of the surrounding West Bank hills. Palestinian officials are asking UNESCO to deem this mountain, along with a list of 20 other West Bank sites, as belonging to Palestinian heritage. But the crisp new Israeli flags whipping in the wind make it abundantly clear who's the boss here. A few days ago, Israel declared this a national park.
GILAD ERDAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ESTRIN: At the ribbon cutting ceremony, government minister Gilad Erdan said the Palestinian Authority claims this site as its own in order to deny Israel's biblical rights to the Holy Land. Our response, he said, is to develop and invest in this place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ESTRIN: Then, an old man in a red turban got up to bless the crowd. He's the high priest of the tiny Samaritan community. This site is where the Biblical Samaritans built their temple and where today's Samaritans still pray. Half of the community lives in Israel. The rest are here. They speak Arabic and attend Palestinian schools. Palestinians see them as proof of their own deep roots in this land.
YEFET COHEN: (Foreign language spoken)
ESTRIN: Samaritan elder Yefet Cohen said he hopes this place can serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. But Mount Gerizim, he said, shouldn't be a tourist trap - it's a holy site. In the Israeli-Palestinian tug of war over heritage sites, it's often the custodians who've looked after these places for centuries who feel the uncomfortable pull. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.