(CNSNews.com) – The U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is hosting three days of meetings relating to the “question of Palestine,” drawing fresh attention to its stance on an issue that has cost it the financial support of the United States, its biggest funder.
At the meetings, which began Wednesday, speakers accused Israel of “systematic terrorism,” “throttling the people” of Gaza, pursuing “criminal” policies and a “policy of racist violence,” operating a “torture machine,” and spreading propaganda in order to prevent many people around the world from grasping the Palestinians’ plight.
The meeting opened with a video message by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said that “the United Nations works day in and day out to promote economic and political empowerment throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.”
U.S. taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s funding until the government was mandated by law to cut the funds last fall, after it became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine” as a member.
The Obama administration wants to restore that funding and is looking for support in Congress for a waiver that would make it possible to do so. UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova has also been lobbying towards that end.
The campaign to restore U.S. funding will not be helped by this week’s events at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
A U.N. body called the “Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People” (CEIRPP) is holding a two-day meeting Wednesday and Thursday focusing on Palestinian women and youth.
This will be followed by a CEIRPP meeting on Friday entitled: “Civil society action towards ending the occupation,” which is expected to close, according to a U.N. press release, with the adoption of “a call for action to end the occupation and realize an independent State of Palestine.”
“UNESCO is once again directly engaged in promoting Israel-bashing, this time by hosting and participating in this anti-Israel U.N. confab,” U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Wednesday.
“This reminds us that UNESCO’s admission of ‘Palestine’ was not a fluke, and that UNESCO is reverting to anti-Israel bias and is unworthy of U.S. funding.”
Ros-Lehtinen said the choice for the administration was clear.
“Rather than trying to defend the indefensible, the Obama administration must stop spinning for UNESCO, condemn that body’s anti-Israel behavior, and withdraw its request for Congress to amend U.S. law to restore funding to UNESCO.”
UNESCO promotes the Palestinian ‘historical legacy’
Bokova, who like Obama administration officials has in her lobbying sought to focus on less contentious areas of UNESCO’s work such as literacy programs, tsunami-warning and Holocaust education, did not take part in Wednesday’s meetings.
She was represented instead by her deputy, Getachew Engida, who in his opening remarks called the meeting “a watershed moment,” noting that, “seven months ago, Palestine became the 195th member of UNESCO.”
Engida then went on to “recall UNESCO’s long lasting commitment to support the Palestinian institutions thereby contributing to U.N.’s overall comprehensive effort for the nation building.”
He pointed among other things to the agency’s “long lasting engagement with the Department of Antiquities in Palestine for the mapping and the preservation of the rich Palestinian cultural heritage – intangible, cultural and natural heritage – [that] is an integral part of the nation-building process and important for fostering a greater appreciation by Palestinian young people of the wealth of their historical legacy.”
UNESCO’s work in that field has been seen as bolstering politically-explosive Palestinian claims to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years, including the traditional burial place in Hebron of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In Oct. 2010, UNESCO’s 58-member executive board passed a resolution reaffirming that the site in Hebron was “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.” The U.S. cast the only “no” vote.
Engida’s remarks Wednesday were followed by a speech by Palestinian Authority (P.A.) women’s affairs minister Rabiha Diab, who hailed the role of Palestinian women in “all forms of the struggle” against Israel.
Palestinian women living in Jerusalem, she said, were “the subject of a policy of systematic terrorism that is aimed at complicating their lives and weakening them.”
Diab sought to link Israel to social problems in the Palestinian self-rule areas such as physical or sexual abuse of women by their husbands.
Noting statistics showing higher levels of domestic violence in Gaza than in the West Bank, she said “there are many reasons for that, including the siege, war and the famine that is imposed by the occupation on the population of the Gaza Strip in the pursuit of its policy of throttling the people.”
Bid to get funding restored
Wednesday’s meeting also heard speeches by delegates on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League, G77 developing nations group and Non-Aligned Movement.
Kuwait’s representative raised the issue of Palestinian applications to join other U.N. bodies such as the World Health Organization, asking what steps the P.A. was taking towards reaching that goal.
After Ban last November voiced grave concern about the financial implications of the U.N. admitting the Palestinians, the P.A. suspended plans to seek membership from other U.N. agencies. The decision was viewed by some Republican lawmakers as evidence that the UNESCO funding cutoff had worked.
Since her agency lost U.S. funds, Bokova has told U.S. audiences – including those at a Council on Global Affairs event in Chicago and an International Women’s Day function in Washington – about the difficulties caused by the cutoff and the importance of UNESCO-U.S. engagement.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told lawmakers in March that UNESCO was “essentially an anti-extremist organization” involved in “essential work, from girls’ education to tsunami warning, that serve U.S. interests.”
“It’s not in our interests for these critical programs to go without 22 percent of U.S. funding,” she said.