Israeli bulldozers carry out controversial work on a pathway next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, in the Old City of Jerusalem, 6 February 2007. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson)
The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voiced his “deep concern” today over construction work initiated by Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem and called for the suspension of any action that could exacerbate tensions.
UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura noted in a statement that the Old City is protected by the UN Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), and is inscribed on the UN World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger.
“The distinctive character of the Old City of Jerusalem derives, in particular, from the close relationship between the historical and religious buildings and the peoples living with them,” the statement said, noting that interfering with the delicate balance among the symbols of the three monotheistic religions would entail running the risk of undermining the respect for sacred beliefs.
“For this reason, the Director-General is launching a vigorous appeal to all people of good will to cease any action that could lead to tensions, whose magnitude can not be foreseen at this time,” it added. “The wisest course would be to suspend any action that could endanger the spirit of mutual respect until such time as the will to dialogue prevails once again.”
Mr. Matsuura said he had written to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to ensure that the work undertaken - the plans of which have not been forwarded to UNESCO - does not in any way undermine the outstanding universal value of the Old City.
In particular, he cited the decision by the World Heritage Committee in 2006 in Lithuania declaring its “concern as to the obstacles and practices, such as archaeological excavations or new constructions, which could alter the outstanding universal value of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem, including its urban and social fabric as well as its visual integrity.”
The Committee requested Israel “to provide to the World Heritage Centre all relevant information concerning the new buildings planned in and around the Western Wall Plaza, including the plans for the reconstruction of the access leading to the al-Haram ash-Sharif.”