Israel plans to spend 3.5 million shekels ( $1 million) of unpaid UNESCO money on Jewish heritage sites in Hebron.
The Israeli Knesset is expected to vote on Wednesday to relocate the funds that would have been paid to UNESCO to the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, with specific instruction to spend it on the development of Jewish heritage sites in Hebron, the Jerusalem Post revealed.
The paper added that "an explanatory text regarding the vote said it was a direct response to a 2017 UNESCO decision to inscribe Hebron's Old Town and the Cave of the Patriarchs [the Ibrahimi Mosque] onto the list of endangered World Heritage sites under the State of Palestine." The resolution was put forward by Jordan and was passed by 12 votes in favour, despite US attempts to pressure a number of UN officials into rejecting the motion.
UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, formally recognised Palestine as a member state in 2011, becoming the first UN body to do so. In response, the USA and Israel withdrew from UNESCO and stopped paying the annual sum to its projects, losing their voting rights as a result. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "UNESCO has become a theatre of the absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it."
UNESCO has long been critical of Israel and its policies. In 2017, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee condemned Israeli policy in occupied East Jerusalem, calling Israel an "occupying power". The committee added that the UN "regrets the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the persistent excavations, tunnelling, works, projects and other illegal practices in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law."
In 2016, UNESCO voted on a resolution which denied any Jewish connection to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Buraq (Western) Wall. The proposal was put forward by a collection of MENA states and passed by a 24-member state majority. The resolution recognised the sanctity of the wider city of Jerusalem to the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but stressed that Al-Aqsa Mosque and its courtyards are only sacred to Muslims.
Hebron, situated in the south of the occupied West Bank, and its Ibrahimi Mosque are repeatedly targeted by Israel. In August, Israeli forces stormed the city and injured dozens of Palestinians, shooting sound bombs and tear gas canisters at Palestinians and stopping and searching residents and vehicles. Israel also closed the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims in August in preparation for a Jewish holiday, banning the call to prayer. The Palestinian Authority (PA) called on Arabic and Islamic states to help, labelling the move "a new Israeli crime in the record of the Israeli crimes being committed against the Palestinians, their land and their holy sites."
The Israeli government has also sought to expand its illegal settlement projects in the area surrounding Hebron. Last month, the Likud government approved plans to expand the industrial park of Kiryat Arba, an illegal Jewish-only settlement to the east of the city. The plans will see the park tripled in size, at a cost of 10 million shekels ($2.7 million). Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem estimates that some 800 Israeli settlers live in H2, the illegal inner-city settlement in Hebron city, along with many more in the city's suburbs and South Hebron Hills.