Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

UNESCO under Israeli fire

A UNESCO resolution condemning Israeli violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque has sparked outrage in Israel, which claims it denies the Jewish connection with Jerusalem. Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should take credit for influencing public opinion on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict when he claimed that the UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, had adopted a resolution denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem this week.

“To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and Western Wall is like saying China has no connection to the Great Wall or that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids,” the right-wing Israeli premier said in a statement.

According to Netanyahu the decision stated that the Jewish people have “no connection to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall,” which are the Jewish names for the Muslim Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the noble sanctuary) where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located in Jerusalem.

To Jews, the site was the location of two ancient temples, destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans in 587 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. Al-Haram Al-Sharif stretches over 35 acres of land where the Al-Aqsa Mosque -built in the 7th century- and Dome of the Rock sit.  It is the third holiest site in Islam and it has been an entirely Muslim place of prayer and pilgrimage for almost fourteen centuries. 

On 12 October, the Paris-based UNESCO voted on a draft resolution entitled Occupied Palestine, the gist of which condemned Israel, “the occupying power,” for pursuing excavations and construction in East Jerusalem, particularly the Old City and for violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque including restricting Muslims’ access to their place of worship.The resolution protested, among other things, against Israel’s refusal to grant visas to UNESCO experts.

The resolution’s 41 sections focussed on the need to preserve the historic status quo of the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which is threatened both by Israel’s excavations and by its demolitions of Umayyad, Ottoman and Mamluke remains in the area. Nothing in the document questions Jewish or Christian ties to the area.

Instead, it affirms the “importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions”.

So why the Israeli wrath? Simply because the resolution “does not mention the Jewish name, the Temple Mount, of the esplanade where the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif stands,” said Rita Awad, former director of the Palestine unit at the Tunis-based ALECSO, an Arab League affiliated cultural and educational body which works closely with UNESCO’s Arab group.

On Tuesday this week, UNESCO’s 58-member executive board adopted the Jerusalem resolution, contrary to speculation that Israeli pressure on the organisation’s member states would influence the vote in its favour.

Observers said that Israel’s reaction before the decision was adopted by the executive board was meant to open discussion at the plenary session and possibly demand another vote that might add the Jewish name of “Temple Mount” beside the Islamic name.

In a nod to Israel, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova spoke out against the draft resolution because of its wording, with observers describing this as unusual.

“This was a very big mistake on Bokova’s part, as the director-general should not interfere in the procedures of the executive board or play a role in directing its decisions,” Awad said.

However, on Tuesday UNESCO’s 58-member executive board ratified the draft resolution with 23 member states supporting the measure and 25 abstaining. Only six states voted against. Mexico, which had originally supported the resolution, abstained.

Israel said it was suspending its cooperation with UNESCO last week following the draft resolution. Because relations between Israel and UNESCO have long been sour, however, the decision is an ineffective one. In 2011, both Israel and the US suspended funding to UNESCO after it approved Palestine’s membership. 

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the resolution in a statement and hinted that Israel had put pressure on several European states to abstain or vote against the decision.

“Rather than spending millions to spin its illegal colonisation into normality and distort reality, Israel, the occupying power, must understand that the only way for it to be treated like a normal state is if it starts acting like one by ending its occupation of Palestine and halting its irresponsible and illegal actions in the occupied land of the State of Palestine, especially East Jerusalem,” the statement read.

According to Nazmi Jubeh, a professor of archaeology at Birzeit University in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank, the ratification is a defeat for both the Arabs and Israel.

“Twenty-three votes in favour of the resolution is not a victory for the Arabs,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is in fact the lowest vote ever for the Arab group. India, which used to vote with us, abstained this time.”

He said the resolution’s content and language reaffirmed previous UNESCO resolutions and did not present anything new despite Israel’s claims. “The Islamic ownership of the Al-Haram Al-Sharif has been an established fact since the British mandate in Palestine,” he said.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee’s decisions on The Old City of Jerusalem in the years 2013, 2014 and 2015 make no mention of Temple Mount and refer to the area only as Al-Aqsa Mosque. Similarly in 23 November 2015, UNESCO’s executive board adopted a resolution condemning Israeli violations in East Jerusalem,  its aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslim’s access "to their holy site Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Ahram Al-Sharif.” No reference to Temple Mount is made.

However, the Israeli narrative was adopted by the international media, including prominent Arab media outlets, who interpreted the angry reaction as a victory and an end to Jewish claims to Al-Haram Al-Sharif.  Some went as far as to consider the UNESCO decision as a historic defeat for Zionism.

“This was an unfortunate reaction,” Awad, the former official in ALECSO, said. “The Arabs who cheered the non-existent claims made by Israel did so out of ignorance, but they also damaged their cause.”

Jubeh argued that much of Israel’s angry reaction was for public consumption, as there have been growing demands by the far right in Israel to allow Jews to pray inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Due to Israel’s alignment with several Arab states in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, the assumption was that the Arab representatives in UNESCO would not vote for the resolution, Jubeh said.

Experts have long warned of the threats that Israeli excavations pose to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif. According to Jubeh, there are currently 35 registered Israeli NGOs whose mandate is to build a third temple at this location. “Temple Mounters” or Jewish redemptionists have been pressing for Israeli changes to the status quo on the Al-Haram Al-Sharif so that it becomes under full Israeli sovereignty.

Al-Aqsa Mosque compound was administered by the Ottoman Waqf Ministry until the British mandate, when it became the responsibility of the Supreme Muslim Council which was chaired by the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El-Husaini until 1948. Since then, the compound has been administered and controlled by the Islamic Waqf, an affiliate of the Ministry of Awqaf in Jordan, with Israel's approval. This arrangment referred to in UNESCO lexicon as the "status quo", has been undermined by Israel which seeks to change it by controlling entry to Al-Haram Al-Sharif.  



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