UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Association, announced a number of resolutions just before the weekend started.
One, submitted by the Russian Federation, called for defining UNESCO’s role in safeguarding and preserving Palmyra and other Syrian World Heritage sites. Another was about “Enhancing UNESCO’s contributions to promote a culture of mutual respect and tolerance.”
A third was simply entitled “Occupied Palestine” and addressed the Jerusalem Old City hotspot that Jews refer to as the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram Al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Except that the Jewish link to the site, considered the holiest place for Jews, went unmentioned.
In the context of Jerusalem’s Old City, the document refers to Israel solely as “the occupying power” and refers to the site itself, the world famous esplanade flanked by the Western Wall – considered by many experts to be the last existing retaining wall of the mount that once held the ancient Jewish temples – only by its Islamic moniker.
The decision refers to the plaza fronting the Western Wall only in quotation marks, except when using one of its Arabic names, Al-Buraq, a reference to the Prophet Mohammed’s ascent to heaven.
The Israeli government responded with fury.
“This is yet another absurd UN decision,” an incandescent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement released late on Saturday. “UNESCO ignores the unique historic connection of Judaism to the Temple Mount, where the two temples stood for a thousand years and to which every Jew in the world has prayed for thousands of years. The UN is rewriting a basic part of human history and has again proven that there is no low to which it will not stoop.”
Carmel Shama Hacohen, Israel’s representative to UNESCO, that has its seat in Paris, issued a press release declaring that “even if UNESCO passes dozens of resolutions, and decides to continue passing thousands more, Jerusalem will always remain as part of the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.”
On Saturday night, addressing Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan, the nations which presented the resolution, Shama Hacohen averred that, “As you continue on this path of incitement, lies and terror you will be sending UNESCO down a path towards irrelevance.”
The Jordan Times reveled: “Jordan triumphant in ‘diplomatic showdown’ over Jerusalem at UNESCO.”
Jews are permitted to visit the site at pre-arranged times, but under international agreements signed in 1967, when Israel captured the area from Jordan in the 1967 war, Jewish worship is banned.
Without citing specifics, the resolution also condemned Israel for “planting fake Jewish graves in other spaces of the Muslim cemeteries” and for “the continued conversion of many Islamic and Byzantine remains into the so-called Jewish ritual baths or into Jewish prayer places.”
Among the states supporting the decision were Argentina, France, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, India and Russia, several of which enjoys ostensibly warm relations Israel.
A UNESCO spokesman declined to comment on the decision.
The Israeli government also declined to comment beyond the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The resolution, considered a victory for anti-Israel hard-liners, also affirms that Hebron, a city that according to a most histories has a 3000-year history of Jewish life, and Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, are “are an integral part of Palestine.”
Referencing “ongoing Israeli illegal excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and a separation wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalīl/Hebron, that harmfully affect the integrity of the site, and the subsequent denial of freedom of movement and freedom of access to places of worship,” UNESCO also urged “Israel, the occupying Power, to end these violations in compliance with provisions of relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions.”
This resolution is not the first attempt to designate anew holy sites in what may be the most contested spot in the Middle East.
In October, 2015, facing the rejection of Russia, China and even Cuba, that usually joins anti-Israel initiatives, the Palestinian delegation to UNESCO withdrew a proposed resolution that would have defined the Western Wall itself as an “integral part” of the compound holy to Muslims.
Anwar Ben Badis, a professor of Arabic and Aramaic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Al-Quds University, who often leads tours of the esplanade, said the decision was “unequivocally political, not legal or binding in any way, but at attempt to support and further the Palestinian struggle.”
Speaking with The Media Line, Ben Badis said he believes “that every decision provides international support to everything the Palestinians are doing to free Al-Aqsa and all of Palestine.”