NEWS BRIEF Israel suspended ties with UNESCO Friday after the UN’s cultural agency passed a resolution criticizing Israeli policy surrounding religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and using language Israel says denies Jewish ties to the region’s holy sites.
The draft decision, put forward by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan, begins by asserting the religious significance of “the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” The contention, however, arises with the remainder of the document, and the wording it uses. When the draft gets to the Temple Mount—known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif and in Hebrew as Har HaBayit— the document refers to the site only using its Islamic name, despite the fact the location is home to the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest site in Islam.
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The document criticized actions taken by Israel, which it refers to as the “occupying Power,” around the holy sites, including restriction of UNESCO experts’ access to sites and actions by Israeli forces against Muslim worshipers. Israel has occupied the West Bank since the war of 1967 and annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, that same year. This move, however, has not been recognized under international law. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.
Twenty-four countries voted in favor of the UNESCO draft resolution, with 26 abstaining. Six countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Lithuania, and Estonia, voted against it.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, condemned UNESCO’s passage of the resolution as a “delusional decision that states that the Jewish People have no connection to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall. ”
What's next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) October 13, 2016
The Palestinian Authority praised the resolution, but condemned Israel for shifting “the focus from Israel's illegal and colonial actions in occupied East Jerusalem to issues irrelevant to the content and objectives of the resolutions, which aims to put an end to Israel's dangerous and illegal actions against holy sites in Jerusalem and Palestinian rights, including the right to worship.”
Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, reaffirmed UNESCO’s commitment to fostering tolerance and respect for Jerusalem’s history in a statement Friday, though she did not mention the controversy around the resolution directly.
“To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” Bokova said. She added: “The recognition, use of and respect for these names is paramount. The 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, a few steps away from the Saint Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives revered by Christians.”
This latest incident illustrates just how loaded language remains in both Israeli and Palestinian narrative—from the more serious contention over whether the West Bank should be referred to as part of Palestine or as Judea and Samaria, to the seemingly innocuous debate over how to properly pronounce hummus.