The UN's record of standing up to Israel's bully-boy tactics is littered with failure. Last month, however, that trend was bucked when UNESCO adopted two telling resolutions on Jerusalem. Not only did the organisation reject Israel's claims of ownership within the occupied city, but, more importantly, it also reaffirmed that all attempts by the self-styled Jewish state to change the demographic and religious character of Jerusalem are illegal, null and void.
Naturally, it would take much more than a UNESCO resolution to deter the Israelis from their attempts to "Judaise" Jerusalem. Scores of similar resolutions have been passed before, all to no avail. Times have changed, though, and a growing number of member states are no longer prepared to be browbeaten into supporting illegal policies that usurp the rights of other people.
As expected, the Netanyahu government reacted to the UNESCO decision in the only way it knows how, with diplomatic tantrums, political threats and state violence. Incredibly, it produced, almost out of thin air, a "unique 2,700-year-old papyrus" which it claims is evidence of a connection between the city of Jerusalem and the period when the Kings of Israel were on their relatively unimportant throne. This was taken immediately as a green light to intensify excavation activities beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque. Yisrael Hasson, Director of the Israeli Authority of Antiquities, announced that it has agreed with the government that it will become mandatory for every Israeli youth to take part in the excavation works.
In what can only be interpreted as retaliation for the UNESCO vote, Israel followed up by razing a number of Muslim graves in the historical Bab Al-Rahmeh Cemetery, east of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and hoisting the Israeli flag over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the occupied Old City. The latter was not only an act of defiance to UNESCO but also an insult to the Russian government, which voted in support of the resolutions; the Orthodox Church plays an important role in the administration of the historic site.
Though depicted by Israel and its allies as "controversial" and "inflammable", the UNESCO votes were by no means historical oddities. As far back as December 1930 an international commission appointed by the British government and approved by the Council of the League of Nations, and headed by Eliel Lofgren, a former Swedish minister of foreign affairs, ruled unanimously that:
- "To the Muslims belong the sole ownership of, and the sole proprietary right to the western wall, as an integral part of al Haram Ash Sharif area."
- "To the Muslims also belongs the pavement in front of the wall and the adjacent Maghribi (Moroccan) Quarter opposite."
- "The Jews shall have free access to the wall for the purpose of devotion at all times" – subject to certain stipulations.
The circumstances which led to the 1930 commission were very similar to those that exist today. Back then, it was the Zionist claims to the Western Wall that led to the 1929 uprising in which more than 133 Jews and 116 Palestinians were killed. Indeed, in a letter dated 30 May 1918, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann wrote to Britain's Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, demanding:
the handing over of the Wailing Wall as the only one [holy place] which is… left to us… our most sacred monument, in our most sacred city, is in the hands of some Maghreb religious community…
The latest round of unrest in Jerusalem has come in the wake of heightened Israeli attempts to create new facts on the ground in the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa. Around 275 Palestinians have been killed by the occupation forces since October 2015. It was within this context that the UNESCO resolutions were drafted and voted on.
Although the UNESCO votes signal a welcome development, they do not go far enough to be regarded as a game changer. However, this is not a lost cause. The UNESCO resolutions can be given real teeth if the organisation goes one step further and calls for a cultural boycott of Israel in support of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This would isolate Israel, just as apartheid South Africa was banished from cultural and sporting activities around the world. The South African anti-Apartheid movement succeeded, in part, because it managed to develop a coalition of committed governments and people who were able to effect both domestic and international policy in institutions like the UN and its agencies.
Similarly, the BDS movement against Israeli apartheid must forge similar alliances and secure the support of governments in the global north and south. Some will, inevitably, be reluctant and even try to be obstructive (this has already been seen in Britain). In the long run, though, they will have to accept that the tide of history is moving towards the restoration of law and human rights for all of the people in and of Palestine.