UNESCO criticizes Israel over handling of holy sites

PARIS – The United Nations’ cultural heritage agency adopted a resolution that criticized Israel for mishandling heritage sites in Jerusalem, but it left out a contentious clause that would have classified the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, as a part of Al Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City.

The resolution was approved in a vote by the 58-member executive board of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Paris-based agency that designates and tries to protect cultural treasures around the world.

It strongly condemns what it calls Israeli aggression and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site, Al Aqsa Mosque and firmly deplores the continuous storming of the mosque compound by Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces.

The proposal regarding the Western Wall had emerged amid a deadly flare of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, prompted partly by a dispute over Al Aqsa compound, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims.

In recent months, Israeli security forces have entered the compound in response, the authorities say, to Palestinian youths who have stayed in the mosque overnight with stockpiles of stones, fireworks, metal bars and even pipe bombs.

– Integral part of Palestine –

While the resolution dropped the clause classifying the Western Wall as part of Al Aqsa compound, it reaffirmed that two other sites, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, which are in the West Bank, were an integral part of Palestine.

The resolution criticized aspects of Israel’s management of holy sites in Jerusalem, saying that it deeply deplores the recent repression in East Jerusalem, and the failure of Israel, the occupying power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City. It also condemned the continuous negative impact of the Israeli military confrontations in the Gaza Strip on UNESCO operations.

Israel quickly condemned the resolution. “This decision is yet another step in the continuous Palestinian endeavor to rewrite history and distort the sources of World Heritage in this part of the world,” the government said in a statement. “The Palestinian leadership’s attempt to claim for themselves Jewish and Christian holy sites doesn’t bode well; suffice to look at the torching of Joseph’s Tomb by Palestinians just a few days ago.”

Ronald S Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a statement that UNESCO had given in to false claims and to radical, one-sided Palestinian demands. However, Lauder and other Jewish leaders praised UNESCO’s director general Irina Bokova for opposing the clause about the Western Wall. Irina, a Bulgarian diplomat, had said that the clause could be seen to alter the status of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and that could further incite tensions.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon speaking at a news conference in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was deeply concerned by repeated provocations at the holy sites in Jerusalem, which have fueled the current outbreak of violence. A UNESCO spokesman said that the 26 members voted in favor of the resolution and six against, with 25 abstaining and one member absent, but did not provide a breakdown of the vote.

American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris said that the US, Britain, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany and the Netherlands had voted no. The resolution had been put forth by six board members, representing Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. The US is part of the executive board; Israel is not.

Palestine became a full member of UNESCO in 2011, a move widely seen as a major step towards recognition as an independent state, but it is not part of the executive board this year. Neither is Jordan, which is the custodian of Al Aqsa compound. The resolution also asked Israel to respect the pre-1967 status quo at the site, referring to the period before Israel conquered the Old City, along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, from Jordan in the 1967 war.

From 1948 until 1967, Israelis did not have access to the Old City compound, when it was under Jordan’s control. The Palestinians have accused Israel of permitting increasing Jewish encroachment at the site and of plotting to divide it, charges that Israel has denied.

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