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20 October 2016

UNESCO vote is about Israeli occupation, not Jewish history

By: Daoud Kuttab
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The recent resolution that was approved by the world’s cultural body about the old city of Jerusalem, Al Haram Al Sharif and the Ibrahimi Mosque had nothing to do with Jews or Jewish history.
A close reading of the resolutions passed by UNESCO shows that they are about Israel and its practices in occupied Palestinian territories.
Yet, one would not notice this fact if one were following the Israeli media as well as much of the world media that falls within its orbit.
The spin and overreach of the Israeli hasbara (propaganda) machine would have its readers believe that this was the most anti-Jewish resolution ever.
The UNESCO resolution condemned Israel for its actions against Palestinians and Palestinian holy places, and reminded the world that repeated attempts by UNESCO experts to examine the situation on the ground and to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials were blocked by the Israeli occupiers.
While there was no explicit anti Jewish reference in the resolution, the word occupation appears 15 times in the text because that was the focus of the resolution.
When it comes to how occupied territories are to be treated by the occupying powers, international humanitarian law is full of clear text regarding what is and is not allowed, especially in terms of excavations, archaeology, cultural theft and cultural rebranding.
It is within this focus that UNESCO referred to the Islamic holy places in the names that they have been referred to before the occupation, in fact for centuries. Had UNESCO acted differently, the world body itself would have been guilty of cultural rebranding.
In its resolution, in the third clause, UNESCO affirmed “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls for the three monotheistic religions”. Also, in reference to the two holy sites in Hebron, it affirmed the international community’s conviction that “the two sites are of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam”.
The current rightwing Israeli government failed to respond to the damning resolutions that clearly expose consistent Israeli violations of international law and UNESCO resolutions, and focused on what was not mentioned, rather than what was the main focus of the resolution.
Unfortunately the Israeli government got help from an unexpected source, the UNESCO director general, who spoke out in a public statement criticising the resolution voted on by the majority of the member states who appointed her.
In her statement, Irina Bokova said that “Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif, the sacred shrine of Muslims, is also the Har HaBayit — or Temple Mount — whose Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism”.
The Palestine Project, among others, responded to Bokova with a detailed paper quoting Israeli archaeologists in October 2015, who were unable to show the connection between Al Haram Al Sharif and the Jewish temples.
“Archaeologists cannot conclusively point to stones they know comprised the Second Temple, let alone the first one,” Israeli archaeologists were quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Israel, a state that was given legitimacy by a UN resolution, should know better than oppose a resolution passed with a majority by the world’s leading cultural body.
The Israelis who suspended their relations with UNESCO due to the absence of their language in the resolution would do the world a service by understanding and applying international law whose spirit and text are being violated daily by Israel’s practices, as an occupying power.
Cooperating rather than suspending relations with UNESCO would be the proper way forward, especially since the director general has shown that she is able to act independently.
When it comes to Jerusalem and the holy sites, the first place to start could be serious and genuine cooperation with the Jordanian Waqf Ministry, which is entrusted by Palestinians and the Islamic world to be custodian of the Islamic shrine.
After all, Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan and an understanding that can be the basis for serious progress towards de-escalating tensions in Jerusalem.
The return to the 2000 status quo would entail the Israelis relinquishing exclusive controls of the Mughrabi gate and turning it over to the joint Jordanian waqf/Israel police units that are stationed at all other gates of this religious Islamic location.
Anyone wishing to visit the site, including Israeli, can do so through the proper gates and at the set visitation hours. After all, the mosque is for Muslims to worships while others, including Jews, can visit.
Religion and religious sites are a sensitive issue and a tinderbox that can easily cause an explosion if not handled carefully and wisely.
Jordan, which is custodian of the holy places in Jerusalem, can and should be given a chance to play its role without the Israeli overreach and the noise coming from the Netanyahu spin machine.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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