A draft decision by UNESCO, which criticises Israel’s activities at holy places in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, has been denounced by Israeli officials. “It ignores thousands of years of Jewish ties to Jerusalem and aids Islamist terror,” claimed Education Minister Naftali Bennett very dramatically.
Never one to miss an opportunity to conflate Judaism and Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Facebook post that UNESCO had become a “theatre of the absurd”, to which he added: “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids.”
The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, called UNESCO’s announcement an “inflammatory, one-sided decision” as Israel took the predictable step of freezing co-operation with the UN cultural body which seeks to “contribute to peace and security” by safeguarding world heritage and cultural sites.
The UNESCO decision, however, does none of the things that the Israelis and their supporters claim. The draft decision “affirms the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions” while also affirming that “nothing in the current decision, which aims, inter alia, at the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem, shall in any way affect the relevant Security Council and United Nations resolutions and decisions on the legal status of Palestine and Jerusalem”.
Israel’s problem with the UNESCO decision emanates from the simple fact that it has no way of reconciling its colonialist policies in the West Bank and Gaza with international law. Israeli officials were just as quick to denounce the International Court of Justice’s decision on its construction of the “separation” wall or the dozens of UN Security Council resolutions condemning the construction of illegal settlements. Like its condemnation of the UNESCO decision, Israel extorts political gain by claiming security concerns and its fight against “Islamist terrorism”.
The 58 member of the UNESCO board voted this week on a draft document that raises concerns about Israel’s violation of international law. Israel, predictably, hopes to deflect these concerns by conflating Jewish history with Israeli policy. The draft text, which was passed by 24 votes in favour to six against, with 26 abstentions, noted the following:
- The failure of Israel, the Occupying Power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City and reiterates the request to Israel to prohibit all such works in conformity with its obligations under the provisions of the relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions;
- Called on Israel, the Occupying Power, to allow for the restoration of the historic status quo;
- Strongly condemned the escalating Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the Awqaf [Religious Endowments] Department and its personnel, and against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their Holy Site;
- Deplored the continuous storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by right-wing Israeli extremists and uniformed forces, and urges Israel, the Occupying Power, to take necessary measures to prevent provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity of Al-Aqsa Mosque;
- Deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions against civilians including Islamic religious figures and priests, and urges Israel, the Occupying Power, to end these aggressions and abuses which inflame the tension on the ground and between faiths;
- Disapproves of the Israeli restriction of access to Al-Aqsa Mosque and called on Israel to stop all violations against Al-Aqsa Mosque;
- Criticised Israel’s refusal to grant visas to UNESCO experts in charge of the UNESCO project at the Centre of Islamic Manuscripts in Al-Aqsa Mosque;
Raised concern regarding the illegal demolitions of Umayyad, Ottoman and Mamluk remains as well as other intrusive works and excavations in and around the Mughrabi Gate Pathway, and also requests Israel, to halt such demolitions, excavations and works and to abide by its obligations under the provisions of the UNESCO conventions.
The draft resolution, which also goes on to deplore the continuous Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and reaffirms the integral link between Palestine and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, is a full scale condemnation of Israel’s total lack of disregard for Al-Aqsa Mosque, and its refusal to act in accordance with UNESCOs recommendation in maintaining the sanctity of the religious sites that are holy to all three Abrahamic faiths. Despite the best efforts of Israeli officials to paint this decision as yet another anti-Jewish declaration it is actually nothing of the sort.
A UN body such as UNESCO has a duty to highlight Israel’s ongoing annexation and colonisation of Palestine. It has an even bigger obligation to raise awareness of the systematic efforts by hostile parties — no matter who they are — to seize control of world heritage sites. Only in the eyes of Israel — the Occupying Power, remember — could that be seen as “inflammatory”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.