Despite the machinations by Israel and the US, there was great joy expressed at the assembly of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) when Palestine was voted in as a member state last week.
Like thwarted bullies, both Israel and the US reacted with theatrical pique and fury. The US, never applying sanctions against Israel’s decades-long war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank by suspending its billions in aid and arms, immediately withdrew its $80 million contribution to UNESCO as a collective punishment.
In addition, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the US will “consider new legislation to impose additional restrictions on American funding of the UN, threaten cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority, and slash military assistance to key foreign countries in retaliation to their support for the Palestinian bid for full UN membership” (“US cuts funding for UNESCO after Palestinian vote,” 31 October 2011). The US is bound by two laws passed by Congress in the 1990s to cut the funding to any UN body involved with recognition of a Palestinian state, even at the risk of harming America’s own interests (“The UNESCO mess,” Al Jazeera English, 1 November 2011).
Israel went even further. Haaretz reported the possibility of Israel “imposing sanctions on the Palestinian Authority … increasing settlement construction, and halting the transfer of tax money which Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority.” Israel announced the go-ahead for yet another 2,000 settler homes in East Jerusalem, using illegal means like the theft of land to punish a democratic vote in favor of the Palestinians, as it did with the democratic election of Hamas in 2006 (“Netanyahu: It is Israel’s right and obligation to build in Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 2 November 2011).
Israel’s warning that it “will now reconsider its cooperation with UNESCO” is the biggest irony. Like its relentless impunity to international law including UN resolutions, Israel has disregarded all the warnings by UNESCO ever since its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem not to change the status of the Old City and its environs (“The Director-General of UNESCO voices his alarm over the resumption of tensions in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 8 February 2007).
Israel continues to clash with UNESCO and the UN over the designation of holy sites in Jerusalem (“Israel clashes with UNESCO in row over holy sites,” Haaretz, 3 November 2010). Israel’s planned “Historical Trail” designed to “strengthen ties between global Jewry and Israel’s historical and Zionist legacy” includes many sites in the occupied West Bank; Israeli tourist advertisements include a map showing the whole West Bank as “Israel” (“Israel mulls NIS 500M ‘heritage’ trails that reach into West Bank,” Haaretz 15 February 2010).
Israel has displayed no hesitation to destroy or seriously damage historic areas of cities like the casbah in Nablus, or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as it did during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Immune to Muslim sensitivities and world protests, it continued with the destruction of graves in the ancient Muslim cemetery in Mamilla, Jerusalem, to build the “Museum of Tolerance” (“A monument to intolerance?” The Guardian, 26 November 2008).
Israel has carried on with questionable archaeological activities since the 1967 war. It has declared the entire Old City a site of antiquity, and all the archives and collections of the Rockefeller Museum (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) in occupied East Jerusalem, and other institutions were declared to be the state’s “national and cultural” property, contravening the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
This “ownership” is still emphasized today by Benjamin Netanyahu who has declared “United Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours.”
Jerusalem’s Old City reconstruction was “fashioned over ruins incorporated into the new structures, so as to appropriate previous historical narratives into the expansion of the Jewish nation state, to establish a ‘priority of right’ ” (“Facts on the Ground,” Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, 10 June 2009).
Most controversially, excavations have been allowed to be taken under control by the ultra-religious authorities and organizations like Ateret Hacohanim in the Western Wall Heritage Tunnel, and the radical settler movements like Elad in Silwan, a district of East Jerusalem beside the Old City’s walls. This is now being questioned by Israeli archaeologists themselves, worried at the dangerous concoction of its use as part of the colonial expansion in the Old City and the Holy Basin.
Now Israel has given over the administration of the City of David National Park to the complete control of Elad, which is being questioned by human rights organizations in the courts (“Israeli NGO: Elad group has ‘veto power’ over Jerusalem’s City of David,” Haaretz, 24 October 2011).
New threat to al-Aqsa mosque
The controversial demolition of the Mughrabi Bridge onto the Haram al-Sharif and the building of a new bridge to access the area is now being raised again. The new bridge will give Israeli settlers their own access to the al-Aqsa mosque area, which fundamentalist groups wish to replace with a rebuilt temple (“Demolition of historic bridge to Al-Aqsa will have serious consequences,” Middle East Monitor, 1 November 2011).
Israel’s fear is that UNESCO membership for Palestine will threaten its hegemony over the historic sites and its claim to all of the “Holy Land.” The Palestinian Authority has said it will be able to seek the status of world heritage sites for the Church of Nativity as the birthplace of Jesus, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Hamdan Taha , the PA’s antiquities and culture minister, said “UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?” (“Palestinians compile list of heritage sites as part of UNESCO campaign,” Haaretz, 10 October 2011).
This is exactly what Israel wishes to do in its opposition to the UN granting Palestinian statehood. It insists on endless negotiations on a useless “peace process” and relegating recognition of a Palestinian state to a “final status” issue, to prevent this from ever happening. As Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli general said, “The establishment of … a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else … Either the state of Israel — or a Palestinian state.” (“Zionist ‘negotiating strategy’ sham,” Israeli Occupation Archive, 21 October 2011).
Now that the Palestinian Authority has full UNESCO membership status, it will apply for membership of the World Health Organization and 15 smaller UN agencies which will add even further to Israel’s and the US’ chagrin (“With UNESCO membership granted, Palestinians seek to join 16 more UN agencies,” 1 November 2011).
As a response to the unhinged and irrational behavior of Israel and the US over UNESCO membership, it behooves the responsible members of the UN Security Council and General Assembly to ensure that Palestine achieves full member status of the UN. That is the only way, apart from boycotts, divestment and sanctions, to break the logjam against peace and justice in the Middle East.
Abe Hayeem is a founder member of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine.