UNESCO Board Criticizes Israel, and Only Israel, Over Jerusalem Tensions

By Patrick Goodenough | October 21, 2015 | 7:01pm EDT
An aerial view of the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – in Jerusalem’s Old City shows the Dome of the Rock mosque and the Western Wall below. The Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most revered site in Islam, is off-camera to the right. (AP Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, the executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution Wednesday blaming Israel, alone, for tensions surrounding religious sites in Jerusalem.

Israel’s foreign ministry said the board by its action had “joined the pyromaniacs seeking to set fire to the most sensitive sites to humankind,” while the U.S. ambassador called the measure “highly politicized” and “even more inflammatory than previous items” relating to the topic.

Under pressure, the text’s six Arab sponsors amended it before the vote in Paris, removing a particular contentious clause that effectively extended Islam’s claims in the flashpoint Temple Mount area to include the Western or Wailing Wall – the closest point to Judaism’s holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray.

The revision came after protests by Israel and others prompted UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova to issue a statement urging the 58-member board to “take decisions that do not further inflame tensions on the ground.”

“The protection of cultural heritage should not be taken hostage, as this undermines UNESCO’s mandate and efforts,” she said. The organization’s mission is “building peace in the minds of men and women.”

Despite the amendments, the resolution that passed – by a 26-6 vote, with 15 abstentions – repeatedly slammed Israel.

It condemned the “aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967.”

Israel has repeatedly denied Palestinian claims that it is changing or planning to change the arrangements put in place when Israel captured the site from Jordan in 1967: The hilltop compound is administered by a Jordanian Islamic trust, with non-Muslims allowed to visit at stipulated times – but due to Muslim objections, not for formal prayer. Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam, after mosques in Mecca and Medina.

What Israel would defend as security measures in the face of a spate of terror attacks and rioting – including riots launched from inside the Al-Aqsa mosque itself – the resolution deplored as “the recent repression in East Jerusalem.”

The measure also described Israel’s military operations against the Hamas terrorist group as “consecutive Israeli wars on Gaza.”

‘Harsh and inflammatory’

Elsewhere, the resolution reaffirmed earlier UNESCO decisions recognizing two sites whose importance for Jews dates back thousands of years – the tombs of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron and Bethlehem – as “an integral part of Palestine.”

Israel’s 2010 inclusion of the two locations on a list of national heritage sites angered Palestinians and other Muslims, and UNESCO demanded that the move be reversed.

Wednesday’s resolution criticized Israel for failing to comply with that directive.

Israel says their listing does nothing to affect the status quo at either tomb. Hebron and Bethlehem both fall within the area claimed by the Palestinians for a future state, but the angry reaction was religious as well as political: According to Islamic teaching, the biblical figures buried there – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s wife, Rachel – are Muslims.

The resolution was sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.  The six “no” votes came from the United States, Britain, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany and the Netherlands.

“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,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said after the vote.

“The deep Jewish ties to the holy sites in Jerusalem and its surroundings are undeniable and no decision of UNESCO can alter that.”

“Even with some modifications, these resolutions remain unacceptable and do not further the mandate and standing of UNESCO,” U.S. ambassador Cystal Nix-Hines told the session.

“As we have said before, these are difficult issues – but harsh and inflammatory resolutions only distract from the positive work of UNESCO,” she said.

UNESCO in 2011 became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine,” and as a result lost U.S. funding. The Obama administration has been trying ever since to persuade Congress allow the funding to be restored.

The U.S. is hoping to be re-elected to the UNESCO board in elections scheduled for next month, and Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to its Paris offices last week assured the agency that “our commitment to this organization has never been stronger.”

Until the administration was compelled to withhold the funding, U.S. taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget.

The U.S. relationship with UNESCO has not always been smooth. President Reagan withdrew the U.S. from the organization in 1984, citing mismanagement and accusing it of pursuing an anti-Western agenda. President George W. Bush returned to UNESCO in 2003, saying it had made important reforms under its then-Japanese director-general.

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