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Israel caves declared heritage site

A network of caves outside Jerusalem has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations cultural agency, the eighth such site in Israel.

Unesco added the 2,000-year-old, man-made caves of Beit Guvrin-Maresha - known as a "city under a city" - to the prestigious list of World Heritage sites during its annual meeting in Qatar on Sunday.

The announcement by the World Heritage Committee came only two days after Unesco listed the Palestinian village of Battir as a World Heritage site in danger, raising hopes among its residents that this will protect their community against Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

The intricate Beit Guvrin-Maresha caves have been used for thousands of years as quarries, burial sites, storerooms, hideouts and dovecotes. They are comprised of chambers and networks with various functions, and are situated below the ancient twin towns of Maresha and Beit Guvrin.

Israel now boasts a total of eight World Heritage sites, including Masada, the Old City of Acre and the Bahai Holy Shrines in Haifa.

Only countries that have signed the World Heritage convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, can nominate a site, which must have an "outstanding universal value" to qualify.

Battir, located just south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, was chosen earlier by the Unesco committee after Palestinians submitted the site in an emergency nomination. The famed valley is known for its ancient farming terraces and an irrigation system dating to roman times.

In listing Battir on Friday, Unesco said the village faces "irreversible damage", citing "the start of construction of a separation wall that may isolate farmers from fields they have cultivated for centuries".

Israel began building a separation barrier in the West Bank more than a decade ago, saying it is meant to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and other militants. The Palestinians say the barrier has turned out to be a land grab because it slices off almost 10% of the West Bank.

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