A UNESCO spokesman confirmed that the board did so “by consensus” after a subsidiary commission dealing with external relations voted last week to recommend their passage. The only countries to vote against the two resolutions were the United States, Germany and the Czech Republic in the one case, and the U.S. alone in the other.
UNESCO in 2011 became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine,” a step that resulted in a loss of U.S. funding. Until then, American taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of the Paris-based agency’s operating budget.
In a series of recommendations to executive board, the external relations commission sided with Palestinian claims to a site in Hebron and a site in Bethlehem.
It also deplored a decision by the Israeli government not to comply with an earlier UNESCO directive to remove the two sites from an Israel national heritage list.
The Hebron site is the Cave of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial place of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The site in Bethlehem in the traditional burial site of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Hebron was also the capital of the kingdom of Israel for seven years before King David moved his seat to Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago, as recorded in 2 Samuel 5.
Hebron and Bethlehem both fall within the area claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. A resolution adopted by the UNESCO board reaffirmed an earlier stance that the sites “are an integral part of Palestine.”
When Israel first included the two sites on a register of 150 national heritage sites in 2010 – a move which it insisted did nothing to change the status quo on the ground – the State Department called the move “provocative” and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned it could spark a “religious war.”
The Cave of the Patriarchs is divided into Jewish and Muslim sections, with a mosque at the site named for Abraham (Ibrahim). Muslims also revere biblical figures, in line with the Islamic precept that major figures, from Adam to Jesus, were Muslim prophets.
Among other things the UNESCO resolution condemned Israel for building private roads for the use of Jewish residents of nearby settlements, and for a visit last January by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to what it called “the illegal settlement in the historic center” of the town. It called on “Israel, the Occupying Power, to prevent such visits.”
Other provisions in the two resolutions criticized “continuous Israeli violations, abuses, works and excavations” in and around Jerusalem’s Old City – location of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most revered location in Islam.
The Temple Mount has been under overall Israeli control since 1967, although an Islamic trust administers the site. The international community does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the area.
One of the UNESCO resolutions accused Israeli authorities of “the targeting of civilians including religious figures, sheikhs, and priests” and for allowing intrusions into the mosque area by armed forces as well as “religious extremists groups.”
The text was silent on sporadic Arab rioting that occurs on and around the Temple Mount, but it did deplore “the large number of arrests and injuries” in the area at the hands of Israeli forces.
The two Israel-focused resolutions made up a prominent part of the commission’s report to the executive board. The only other resolutions relating to specific country situations dealt with threats to cultural heritage in Crimea and Iraq.
In the latter case, it reaffirmed concern about attacks on Iraq’s heritage – although with no specific examples cited – and expressed support for efforts to safeguard it.
Since last June Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists have destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in Mosul and ancient sculptures at Nimrud in the Nineveh Plain, and torched thousands of manuscripts and books at a library in Mosul.
UNESCO’s admission of “Palestine” in late 2011 triggered a U.S. funding cutoff mandated by a 1990 law barring financial support for “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
The move cost UNESCO more than one-fifth of its operating budget, sparking a financial crisis for the agency.
Since then the Obama administration has repeatedly sought waiver authority to enable it to resume funding, without success.
The administration in its fiscal year 2016 State Department budget request did not ask for any money for the U.S. contribution to UNESCO.
Instead, it asked for authority to transfer up to $160 million from other accounts to the “contributions to international organizations” (CIO) account, for use in the event that “authority to waive the statutory restrictions on paying contributions to UNESCO is enacted.”