The following is an open letter sent to Director-General of UNESCO Koichiro Matsuura on 14 February 2008:
Dear Mr. Matsuura,
On behalf of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), we are writing to express our deep concern about your statements, quoted in The Jerusalem Post (7 February 2008), during your recent visit to Israel. These statements were one-sided, completely ignoring Israel’s continuous crimes against Palestinian history and heritage.
Tel Aviv’s “White City” is now one of five Israeli locations named in the World Heritage List under the auspices of UNESCO. It is known that UNESCO [the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] aims to preserve ancient buildings and protect them as part of human heritage, but that should apply to all cultures. While preserving such sites in Israel, UNESCO is expected to explain what role it has played to date in stopping Israel from or holding it accountable for destroying ancient Palestinian buildings, irreversibly damaging Palestinian landscapes, littering them with illegal colonies and apartheid roads; systematically covering up and/or expropriating historical Islamic and Christian sites that attest to the deep-rooted Arab civilization in Palestine, especially in Jerusalem; and the unethical and illegal use of architecture and archaeology to reinvent the place’s history, as documented in several ground-breaking studies by conscientious Israeli, among other, scientists.
Did UNESCO act in order to stop Israel’s systematic destruction of Nablus’s Khadra Mosque, established in 1250; its ancient soap factories built during the Ottoman era; its Greek Orthodox church; its Yasminah neighbourhood, mostly built 200 years ago; or parts of its 500-year-old kasbah? What did UNESCO do about the tens of mosques and churches that were destroyed by Israel in 1948 or occupied and turned into bars, barns, commercial centers or other facilities benefiting only Jewish Israelis? Is UNESCO planning to take any action in order to stop the implementation of the recent Israeli authorities’ decision to demolish the al-Omari mosque (700 years old) in the village of Umm Tuba near Jerusalem under the pretext that the building had been built without a license?
During your visit to [the Holocaust memorial] Yad Vashem, you defended UNESCO’s general conference resolution calling to promote awareness of Holocaust remembrance. You stated that “It’s important to maintain the remembrance of the Holocaust, but it’s equally important to teach the lessons to children and young people, with the idea of eliminating discrimination and anti-Semitism.” Eliminating racial discrimination in all forms is indeed a noble goal that we all agree on. But shouldn’t that history of crimes against humanity prompt UNESCO to play a more active role in preventing similar crimes everywhere? But how, we are compelled to ask, is UNESCO addressing the current war crimes that Israel is committing against the Palestinians? The crimes of Israel’s systematic and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people take three basic forms: its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories; its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens; and its denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, in contravention of UN resolutions.
Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned right to return to their homes and receive compensation, simply because they are “non-Jews.” It persists in its blatant denial of fundamental Palestinian human rights, in contravention of international humanitarian law and human rights conventions. It still commits successive war crimes in Lebanon and Palestine, the most recent one is the slow genocide against a million and a half Palestinians in the besieged and collectively-punished Gaza Strip. Do you find this an appropriate time to praise Israel and insist on rehabilitating its membership in UN bodies? Why is UNESCO, which led the struggle to isolate South African apartheid in the ’70s and ’80s of the last century accepting to be complicit, whether intentionally or not, in perpetuating Israeli apartheid?
Israel’s attack on the Palestinians did not stop at expropriating land and destroying historical buildings and agricultural land. The Palestinian educational system was, and still is, under systematic attack. Over the past few decades, Israel’s occupation forces have imprisoned tens of thousands of Palestinian students and faculty. Israel has exiled, tortured, or wounded thousands of others. University campuses have been routinely shut down - for several consecutive years, in some cases — by military order as punishment for student activism against the occupation. Under the current regime of closures, curfews and the vast network of military roadblocks and the Wall, normal life, including the pursuit of education, has become impossible for Palestinians.
Many reports, including a UNESCO report in 1980 and another in 1987, documented the Israeli violations of freedom of expression, and freedom of education. In July 2004 the International Court of Justice in the Hague declared the Israeli apartheid Wall as illegal because of its harsh disruption of lives of the Palestinians. But Israel continued building it, inflicting great damage to the Palestinian landscape, economy and society, as well as medical and educational services. But how, we are compelled to ask again, is UNESCO addressing the current crimes that Israel is committing against Palestinian educational institutions?
We call on you, Mr. Matsuura, to implement the UNESCO mission without double standards. The least peace and justice loving people would expect from you is to work towards protecting Palestinian lives and heritage from Israel’s colonial and racist policies.
Dr. Gabi Baramki, founding member of PACBI
Dr. Carmela Armanios Omary, founding member of PACBI