Israel suspended cooperation with UNESCO on Friday following the UN cultural and scientific organization’s adoption of a resolution strongly criticizing Israel’s aggressive actions in and around the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
The US, UK, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia and the Netherlands voted against the resolution, while Russia and China backed it.
Israeli government officials are claiming the motion denies a Jewish connection to the historical site, which includes the Western Wall, despite no explicit language in the motion suggesting such denial.
Israel’s agenda appears to be to assert sovereignty over the site.
Significantly, Israel’s effort to gain a symbolic and perhaps legal foothold at the site through UN resolutions comes as groups that call for the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque and its replacement with a Jewish Temple are intensifying their activities, often with Israeli government funding and support.
Critics have pointed to the motion’s exclusive reference to the site by the name “al-Aqsa mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif” as evidence that the resolution denies any Jewish connection or reverence for the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.
In April, UNESCO passed a similar resolution that came under almost identical criticism.
France voted in favor of that resolution, but subsequently repudiated its support after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a letter of protest to French President François Hollande.
Denouncing illegal actions, not denying ties
In fact, the resolution passed by UNESCO affirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” while calling on Israel to restore the historic status quo of the al-Aqsa mosque compound by returning full authority to the Jordanian Waqf – the institution that has managed it.
Until the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the Jordanian Waqf exercised all maintenance and control over the sacred site.
While the actual compound is still under the authority of the Waqf, its perimeter is controlled by Israel, and Israeli forces make frequent incursions into it.
While undertaking development and archaeological projects around it that threaten the foundation of al-Aqsa, Israel severely restricts Palestinian and Muslim access to the holy site.
The resolution condemns “the escalating Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the [Waqf] and its personnel, and against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif, and requests Israel, the occupying power, to respect the historic status quo and to immediately stop these measures.”
It also denounces Israel’s excavations and demolitions of ancient structures in and around the Old City, the storming of the compound by right-wing extremists and uniformed forces, damage to buildings by Israeli forces and obstruction to needed renovations.
The UNESCO vote comes at a time when Israel has supported a surge in private settlement activity in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
New data show that the number of Jewish settlers in the area surrounding the al-Aqsa compound has increased by 70 percent since 2009. During that same time period, 60 Palestinian families have been evicted, 55 of them in the last two years alone, according to the Israeli nongovernmental organization Ir Amim.
Netanyahu led the chorus of condemnation of the resolution.
“To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China and that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids,” Netanyahu said on Thursday.
Netanyahu’s choice of words is significant: he is asserting that the Israeli state, rather than the Jewish religion, has a “connection” to these sites, which are in the occupied West Bank.
Getting such a “connection” written into UN resolutions would for Israel be a step toward asserting sovereignty over them.
Isaac Herzog, leader of the Israeli opposition, said: “Whoever wants to rewrite history, to distort fact, and to completely invent the fantasy that the Western Wall and Temple Mount have no connection to the Jewish people, is telling a terrible lie that only serves to increase hatred.”
Taking their cue from government spin, Israel advocates have perpetuated the idea that the motion was an attack on Jews’ reverence for the site.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz ran a news story with the grossly misleading headline that “UNESCO backs motion nullifying Jewish ties to Temple Mount.”
“To expunge the Jewish connection to Jerusalem is to deny the very cultural heritage of Jerusalem,” the US-based Anti-Defamation League said.
Even UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, has also piled on criticism, stating: “Different peoples worship the same places, sometimes under different names. The recognition, use of and respect for these names is paramount.”
Anger over the resolution reached the US presidential campaign, with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton issuing sharp condemnations.
The Palestinian Authority released a statement welcoming the resolution that was sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, saying the decision to adopt it reflected the “continued commitment of the majority of member states to confront impunity and uphold the principles upon which UNESCO was founded.”
Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.