PARIS – UNESCO’s executive board on Tuesday approved a resolution that Israel says denies the deep historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem – and that has angered Israel’s government and many Jews around the world.
The resolution is not expected to have concrete impact on Jerusalem itself, but it aggravated diplomatic tensions around the city and within UNESCO, which is also facing a dispute between Japan and China that threatens funding.
It’s the latest of several measures at UNESCO over decades that Israelis see as evidence of ingrained anti-Israel bias within the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters. Israel’s concern has mounted since UNESCO states admitted Palestine as a member in 2011.
The resolution, titled “Occupied Palestine,” lays out rules about the preservation of holy sites in Jerusalem, and uses only the Islamic name for a hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims. The site includes the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical temple and the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Jews refer to the hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s Old City as the Temple Mount. Muslims refer to it as al-Haram al-Sharif, Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary, and it includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The board adopted the resolution by consensus Tuesday at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. A draft form of the resolution had already been approved by a commission last week.
Israel suspended its cooperation with UNESCO over the resolution last week, though it is not clear what programs the suspension will affect. Israel had already suspended its funding to UNESCO when Palestinian membership was approved, along with the United States, which used to provide 22 percent of the agency’s budget.
“We won’t negotiate and we won’t take part in these ugly games,” the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, told The Associated Press after the ratification. “There is no place for these games in UNESCO. This noble organization was established to preserve history, not to rewrite it.”
The longstanding dispute is also linked to Israel’s refusal to grant visas to UNESCO experts to go in the country and assess the level of preservation of the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Elias Sanbar, Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, told the AP this refusal to allow a UNESCO mission was a “very big problem.”
“The aim of the mission was not to say that Israel was an occupying power or not, the whole world knows it,” he told the AP. “The aim was to say: according to the field of competence of UNESCO, are the monuments and historical sites of UNESCO well-preserved, and if restored, well-restored according to the rules of restoration?”
On this issue, Shama-Hacohen said “there will not be any mission to Jerusalem under political decisions – with the words `occupying power,’ with false allegations of Israel, we will never agree to such a mission. Jerusalem is an open city. Jerusalem is a transparent city.”
Israel and the Palestinian authority are not members of the executive board of UNESCO.
Just because UNESCO members adopt such a resolution, doesn’t mean it will lead to major changes on the ground.
UNESCO’s leader Irinia Bokova herself opposed the measure, condemning the religious and cultural divisions being played out in the U.N. body that was created in part to further cross-cultural understanding.
While Bokova runs UNESCO, she has no official control over resolutions, which are sponsored and voted on by the member states. Unlike the U.N., at UNESCO no member state has veto power.
Bokova is “invited” in the draft to submit a report on the Jerusalem resolution at the next Executive Board meeting in April – and could choose to exclude it from her agenda, and effectively brush it under the carpet next time.
Arab representatives at UNESCO argued the resolution was the first text at the agency that explicitly states that the holy sites of Jerusalem are shared heritage belonging to the world’s three main monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
However Hamas, the Islamic Militant group that rules Gaza and is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, interpreted it as denying any Jewish connection to the sites. In a statement, Hamas said it “considers this a victory to the Palestinian cause and a destruction of the Israeli narrative regarding Al-Aqsa.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Israel will continue diplomatic efforts on the issue “and expects all relevant states to support its position on this matter.”
Jordan, the official guardian of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, welcomed Tuesday’s vote. Jordan and Israel have a peace treaty and cooperate closely on security issues, but disagreements over policy at the holy site frequently lead to friction between the two countries.
“This is a historic decision,” he said of Tuesday’s vote. “Jordan will continue its diplomatic and legal efforts to preserve the historic status quo. A two-state solution is the just end of this conflict.”
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