Israel is once again trying to remove Jerusalem’s ancient sites from a UN list of endangered world heritage.
The effort to strip the protection 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. It also follows decades of Israeli destruction of ancient sites in the city.
Less than two weeks after UNESCO adopted a resolution sharply criticizing Israel’s violations at the al-Aqsa mosque/Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, the UN educational and scientific body’s World Heritage Committee Executive Board will vote on whether to keep the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls on the list of endangered sites, a status they have held since 1982.
Fifty-five other UNESCO World Heritage sites around the globe are considered to be in danger.
Jerusalem’s Old City was placed on the list after delegates found the site’s “historical authenticity” and “cultural significance” were threatened by negligence, rapid urbanization and the destruction of religious properties.
Israel has controlled Jerusalem’s Old City since its army occupied East Jerusalem along with the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to ask the 21 member nations on the World Heritage Committee Executive Board not to support keeping the area on the endangered list.
“There is a will to stop this chaos [of such resolutions] which harms everyone,” Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen told The Jerusalem Post.
But Shama-Hacohen said winning favor for Israel’s position from from the World Heritage Committee will be tough.
The committee will meet in Paris next week.
In April, Jordan submitted its report to the World Heritage Committee outlining why the site should remain on the endangered list.
Israel also submitted a report claiming it has undertaken several projects to protect the Old City “while improving the lives of its inhabitants and its use by tourists.”
The Israeli report claims that the Israel Antiquities Authority conducts or supervises all projects in and around the Old City.
But the report fails to mention that the authority has handed over control of several archaeological projects to the extreme settler organization Elad.
Jordan’s report details many of the concerns over the al-Aqsa mosque and the Haram al-Sharif outlined in the UNESCO resolution adopted on 13 October, but also discusses how the surrounding Muslim neighborhoods within the walls of the Old City are threatened.
In recent years, Israeli-government supported private settler groups such as Elad and Ateret Cohanim have forcibly displaced scores of Muslim and Christian families in the Old City to make way for Jewish settlers.
Jordan’s report states that Israel has carried out 20 excavations in the area surrounding the al-Aqsa compound during 2015. It presents evidence that the excavations are discarding historic remains from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. Jordan asserts that the excavations threaten to breach the walls of the al-Aqsa mosque.
The archaeological projects Israel undertakes in Jerusalem have the narrow agenda of unearthing artifacts that demonstrate an ancient Jewish presence in the land while ignoring or destroying artifacts from other eras.
History of destruction
Immediately following the 1967 war, Israel destroyed the 700-year-old Mughrabi Quarter, also known as the Moroccan Quarter, in the Old City in order to create the Western Wall Plaza adjacent to the al-Aqsa compound.
Today the plaza serves primarily as an open gathering space for tourists and Jewish worshippers.
When Israel occupied the area on 7 June 1967, the entire neighborhood was put under strict curfew and Palestinians were shut in their homes.
On the evening of 10 June 1967, the day the war ended, the 650 residents of the Mughrabi Quarter were given two hours to vacate their homes, according to scholar Tom Abowd.
Those who did not leave voluntarily, were removed by force before the area was flattened by bulldozers. By the next night, more than 130 homes had been destroyed.
One woman was buried beneath the rubble, her body found the next morning in the ruins of her home.
Among the scores of homes and structures reduced to rubble, was one of Jerusalem’s oldest Islamic schools, al-Afdaliya, which later came to be known as Sheikh Eid mosque.
The structure has been dated to Saladin’s reign in the 12th century.
Benjamin Kedar, a retired professor of history at Hebrew University and a former vice president of Israel’s National Academy of Sciences and Humanities, called the destruction an “archaeological crime.”
In the last five years, Israel has allowed the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a so-called “Museum of Tolerance” on top of the ancient Muslim Mamilla Cemetery. Though in West Jerusalem, and therefore not the subject of the UNESCO resolutions, it is a stark example of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s disregard for Jerusalem’s people and heritage.
Hundreds of skeletons were dug up in the middle of the night. Yehoshua Dorfman, the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the time, later admitted, “I should have stopped the excavation and not allowed the destruction of that part of the cemetery.”
Dorfman also admitted to mistreatment of Muslim and Christian graves at excavation sites elsewhere, including the Elad-run “City of David” in occupied East Jerusalem. “The bones were just left lying around outside for months until they were taken away,” Dorfman wrote in a book published after his death in 2014, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.
Since UNESCO passed the resolution condemning the myriad ways Israel violates the rights of Palestinian and Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque and threatens the architectural integrity of the compound, Israel has gone on the offensive.
This week, Yisrael Hasson, the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, stepped up the vilification of UNESCO, comparing the UN body to the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, that has destroyed ancient sites in Syria.
These include Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova and UNESCO executive board chair Michael Worbs.
Though there will not be a re-vote, the countries say they would not support a similar resolution in the future.
If Israel should now succeed in convincing the World Heritage Committee to remove Jerusalem from the list of endangered sites, the UN would in effect give a blessing to Israel’s ongoing assault on the city’s ancient heritage.
Ali Abunimah contributed research.