Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
Issue No.543
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THIS CITY IS OURS: panoramic views of Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock

Revoking the death warrant

Omayma Abdel-LatifHow can UNESCO block Israel's bid to take over Jerusalem? Omayma Abdel-Latif chronicles a very political struggle, and speaks to the man in charge of the organisation's cultural schemes

For almost a year now, Professor Oleg Grabar, the prominent Princeton expert on Islamic architecture and the UN's newly appointed special envoy to Jerusalem, has been denied access to the Old City. The Israeli authorities have rejected several requests by UNESCO that Grabar be allowed to proceed with his mission of verifying in situ the nature and extent of the threats to the archaeological sites under occupation. The reason the Israelis have been giving, according to one senior UNESCO official, is that the prevalent political situation is not appropriate for the visit. UNESCO has appealed on many occasions, but to no avail.

"UNESCO is not a superpower, and does not have an army to protect these sites. It can only exercise moral pressure on the member states," Oda Lehmann, the official in charge of the Jerusalem file at UNESCO, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Earlier this week at UNESCO, the Arab group protested the Israeli move. "Israel has no legal or accepted claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem; therefore it has no right to block access to the city," said Ahmed Abdel-Razeq, permanent observer for Palestine at UNESCO. In its statement, the Arab group expressed deep concern over the status of heritage sites under Israeli occupation and pleaded that the international body exercise more pressure on Israel. Arab delegates argued that in the absence of international monitoring instances like the UN's special envoy to Jerusalem, Israel is free to proceed with its plans to obliterate the Palestinian heritage.

Israel's move to make the Old City off limits to impartial observers has focused attention on the fate of the Palestinian heritage under Israeli occupation. Lehmann agrees that the occupation has left the monuments in "very bad condition. When it comes to Jerusalem, we face a problem of sovereignty, for while international declarations don't recognise the Israeli hold, the situation on the ground created by Israel is very different since it decides on who should or should not have access to the city and the monuments," said Lehmann. Because these monuments have deteriorated so quickly under the dual onslaught of neglect and deliberate destruction, UNESCO has decided to allocate a special session during its next general assembly to discuss the situation in Jerusalem. "Jerusalem will be a special point during the next general conference of UNESCO and we will raise the issue of the hurdles Israel puts up before restoration groups," Lehmann added.

Israel's desperate search for any evidence allowing it to claim territorial rights in Palestinian land has also damaged monuments of great significance to the Arab heritage, whether Christian or Muslim, and to history generally. Its reckless efforts, in fact, have led one renowned French scholar to accuse the Israeli antiquities authorities of "ideological excesses and lack of a scientific and impartial approach to the city's centuries-old past."

A report published in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot last week lends credence to this accusation, since the report, leaked from the Israeli prime minister's office, revealed a new scheme to build a synagogue near Al-Haram Al-Sharif (Temple Mount to the Jews). Israeli officials did not confirm the news, but according to Palestine's permanent observer at UNESCO, plans to build a synagogue in the area date back to 4 August 1986, when a group of rabbis issued a declaration allowing Jews to pray at the Haram and demanding the construction of a synagogue there. On 25 July 1995, the Israeli High Court of Justice delivered a ruling that made it legal -- under Israeli law, of course -- for Jews to pray at Temple Mount. Last May, an article published in the daily Ma'arev announced that a new museum had opened at the archaeological excavation site near the Western Wall. The Palestinian English- language weekly Jerusalem Times described the event as reflecting Israel's determination to change both history and the nature of Jerusalem, especially around the Haram area. The controversy once again highlighted Israel's unceasing attempts to impose its sovereign claim (past and present) to all history and heritage throughout the city.

Top: Israelis patrol Al-Haram Al-Sharif, damaged under Israeli control (photo: Randa Shaath); above, elements in Al-Aqsa have been harmed by Israeli excavations (photos: Khaled El-Fiqi)
Archaeological digs carried out by Israeli antiquities authorities at the southwestern corner of Temple Mount have yielded little to confirm their hope of evidence an original, majority Jewish presence; instead, among the incidental discoveries were four vast Muslim palaces built under the Umayyad Caliphate. The excavation work, however, had detrimental effects on these edifices, whose remains cover a vast platform to the south of the Haram Al-Sharif, below Al-Aqsa Mosque, upon which the Israeli authorities have opened a new museum. The former UN envoy to Jerusalem, Professor Lemaire, repeatedly deplored "the construction of a metallic pergola in the middle of the courtyard of one of the Umayyad palaces, which disfigures the site." A report by Professor Leon Pressouyre, the respected evaluator of world heritage sites who visited Jerusalem in September 1999, revealed that the palaces, due to Israeli intervention and years of neglect, have lost their archaeological features, "for in the guise of highlighting the remains of previous periods [the Israeli authorities] trivialise the Umayyad palaces, major monuments in the area over which the Palestinian Waqf [office responsible for the administration of religious endowments] has constantly affirmed the validity of its jurisdiction."

Not all Israel's efforts to change history have been successful, however. One such attempt was dealt a death below late last month when the World Heritage Committee rejected an Israeli request to inscribe Palestinian monuments and historically significant areas, including Jebel Al-Nabi Dawoud (Mount Zion), on the list of world heritage sites under its control. The request, first submitted to the WHC during its 24th session in Australia last December, was rejected on the basis that the site falls within a contested area and that a political solution to the question of Jerusalem is necessary. Palestine's permanent observer at UNESCO told the Weekly that the WHC does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem; ratifying the Israeli request would have meant consecrating occupation.

The Israeli delegation lobbied relentlessly during the conference to place the request on the WHC's agenda, but according to Tahani Omar, Egypt's ambassador to UNESCO, its argument was very weak. "It was unrealistic that they could force this argument on the member states, because how can you claim to be acting as guardian of the cultural heritage when you are contravening the most basic elements of humanitarian law?" Omar demanded. The Israelis have accused the Arab delegates of using the committee as a vehicle for political claims. According to a senior UNESCO official, the international body always steers clear of political conflicts, but in the case of Jerusalem "it is very difficult, because politics and culture are so intertwined." The organisation, however, "is not a political body, and cannot sanction aggressors of culture," the official cautioned.

Still, it can sometimes protect cultural artefacts before they disappear. It was indeed a recent UNESCO report that drew attention to the alarming situation in Jerusalem. The report referred explicitly to the harmful effects of the 34-year-long Israeli occupation, which has taken a grave toll on the city's ancient sites. The Israeli authorities' intransigence toward international observers and archaeologists visiting the Old City is so renowned that Pressouyre was forced to complain: "Mr Avi Shoket, Israel's permanent delegate to UNESCO, had repeatedly opposed my mission and, when I expressed the wish to meet with his successor, Uri Gabay, I was denied an appointment," Pressouyre wrote in his report.

Because the Israeli government has made the city virtually off limits to international researchers and observers, the report, titled "The Safeguarding of the Urban and Monumental Heritage of Jerusalem," was the only recent reference work on Jerusalem available to UNESCO. Pressouyre explained that "the old city is becoming a prisoner of urbanisation and its surroundings," while archaeology and the conservation of monuments in the Old City and its surroundings continue to be approached on "an essentially political basis." He also referred to the "changes in the social composition of the Old City, which are affecting the consistency of the urban fabric and of the built heritage."

Pressouyre's conclusions offer further compelling evidence of Israeli practices of historical fraud. He cites as an example the area of Burj Al-Laqlaq, situated in the northeastern corner of the wall of Soliman the Magnificent. In May 1998, the site was occupied by a group of Israeli squatters who wanted to establish a settlement; the establishment of a small Jewish quarter, with or without a synagogue, on the site of Burj Al-Laqlaq, constituted what he described as both a "historical falsification and an extremely serious provocation." Pressouyre also explained that the digging of a tunnel had damaged the stonework of four buildings: an Ottoman madrasa, the Jawhariya madrasa, the residence of Rabat Al- Kurd and the Manjakiya madrasa.

Still more seriously, while UNESCO officials admit they have evidence that a tunnel has been excavated beneath Al-Aqsa mosque, Lehmann says, "there was very little the international body could do to deter the Israelis." While the organisation cannot intervene in politics, then, it seems politics will continue to affect the heritage UNESCO is meant to protect.

'The Pillar of development'

The 25th session of the World Heritage Committee, held in Paris in late June, gave Munir Bouchnaki the opportunity to play his favourite role in defence of Arab heritage and culture. Bouchnaki, 52, the first Arab to be appointed assistant director-general of UNESCO, has helped abort Israel's attempts to impose its exclusive control on Arab heritage and culture in the occupied territories. The move was blocked on procedural grounds, which means that Israel cannot take advantage here of the leeway other UN organisations offer it.

"Israel's bid to register Palestinian heritage sites considered Jerusalem and its ramparts as 'Israeli territories' and this is an unacceptable argument in the view of the international community," Bouchnaki told the Weekly. "We, as a UN organisation, reject such an argument because Jerusalem is still a conflict zone and Israel cannot claim ownership rights in contested areas," he added. According to Bouchnaki, the issue of Jerusalem will top the agenda of UNESCO's next general assembly, scheduled for October. "The Arab group asked for a special session to be devoted to Jerusalem to discuss current conservation and restoration policies, and the state of archaeological sites under occupation." UNESCO, says Bouchnaki, has supported the request due to the special status of the Old City.

The crisis in Afghanistan is jostling for space at the top of Bouchnaki's agenda. He dismissed contentions that the organisation's tackling of the issue was in any way exaggerated. "UNESCO's strong reaction was not due to the fact that [the statues] were Buddhist, but rather because a whole culture was being erased before our eyes and something had to be done," Bouchnaki said. Preparations are underway for a conference in Qatar that will bring together Muslim scholars and member states to discuss Shari'a provisions for the protection of the non-Islamic heritage. "Muslim countries are joining ranks with UNESCO to present a correct image of Islam and take preventive measures so that the Afghan scenario will not be repeated elsewhere," he added.

Bouchnaki is currently outlining the new policy the international organisation will adopt in the field of cultural development. This plan, he admits, is coloured by his own background. "As a former archaeologist, I see culture as the pillar of development. This approach emphasises the important role played by heritage in the field of creation," Bouchnaki said. Perhaps this is why UNESCO launched its cultures and civilisations programme, which aims at creating "ways of living together" and spreading appreciation of the historical and cultural background of peoples living in different circumstances and areas of the world.

Such a line of thought may smack of familiar globalisation theory, but Bouchnaki believes the UNESCO plan, unlike current trends toward globalisation, will preserve what he dubs "the world's creative diversity." Such a strategy, in his view, will encompass UNESCO's critique of globalisation. "Major trends of globalisation have had negative impacts on culture, even leading to the disappearance of certain cultures," he explained. UNESCO's cultural development strategy will therefore be an important way of preserving culture in countries that do not have the means to so themselves.

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