In response to UNESCO resolutions adopted in October that were highly critical of Israel’s protection of sacred and cultural Islamic heritage sites in Jerusalem, there is again a fiery confrontation between Israel and this UN organ whose actions have so often touched the raw nerves of Western political sensibilities. The main UNESCO resolution ‘deeply deplores’ Israel’s failure to stop a series of excavations and related activities in East Jerusalem, which are declared to be harming Islamic sites in Jerusalem, and above all complains about Israel’s interference with worship and serenity at the Al Aqsa mosque. The resolutions also complain about Israel’s general failure to cooperate with UNESCO’s cultural and religious conservation work in Jerusalem, especially in the ‘Old City,’ even to the point of refusing visas to UN officials seeking to carry out their duties.
Of course, not far in the background is Israel’s hostility toward UNESCO that has been pronounced ever since 2011 when Palestine was admitted to UNESCO as a member state over the vigorous objections of Israel, the United States, as well as several European countries. Unlike the Security Council, where the US could singlehandedly block full UN membership, there is no veto in either the General Assembly or in UN specialized agencies. Israel has refused all cooperation with UNESCO ever since Palestine gained membership, which presupposes that Palestine qualifies for membership because it has the credential of a state. Obligingly, the U.S. reinforced Israel’s hostility by withholding its annual contributions ever since, which amounts to a hefty 22% of the UNESCO budget.
This New Controversy
This latest initiative raised substantive issues high on the UNESCO agenda. This contrasts with the earlier status fight about admission to the agency, which was limited in scope to a procedural matter, that is, whether or not Palestine qualifies as a state entitled to membership. Here, Israel insists that UNESCO is aligning itself with a sinister Arab effort to minimize, or even erase, Jewish historic and religious connections with Jerusalem, and specifically with the area around Al Aqsa Mosque and the nearby Noble Sanctuary. The resolution fails to mention explicitly Jewish connections with the Temple Mount and Western Wall, using only Arab names for these places of overlapping religious significance, although in its general language it was acknowledged in the UNESCO text that all three monotheistic religions possessed historical connections with the Old City in Jerusalem that should be respected. It is accurate for Israel to assert that the Temple Mount and Western Wall are the very most sacred of all Jewish holy places, a reality that should have been acknowledged. It was somewhat invidious, and not really relevant, for the Israeli denunciation of the UNESCO action, to point out that Al Aqsa ranked only third in the Islamic canon, behind Mecca and Medina, and thus seemingly had a lesser claim on UNESCO’s protection if competing claims were at issue. Actually, this line of attack is a red herring as there was no UNESCO attempt to denigrate Jewish claims; the resolutions were devoted to pointing out Israel’s failures of responsibility with Islamic sites.
Nevertheless, in a typically diversionary spirits, Israel’s top politicians insisted that to approach UNESCO’s role in Jerusalem in such an allegedly partisan manner effect was deeply offensive to Jewish concerns. Netanyahu, never at a loss for invective, put his objection this way: “Saying that Israel doesn’t have a connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying the Chinese don’t have a connection to the Great Wall.” He went on, “Through this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the little bit of legitimacy that it has.” Let’s be clear. The UNESCO resolutions in no way denied Jewish connections with the holy sites of Jersualem, it just failed to acknowledge them by name. There was no ‘absurd decision’ as the resolutions were above all a fully legitimate, even overdue, call to Israel to start performing its proper role of protecting Islamic sites as Occupying Power in accord with law, and in the interest of cultural preservation. There were strong grounds to believe that Israel was administering Jerusalem in ways that were threatening in various ways to the integrity and enjoyment of Islamic sites. From this perspective it was in no way relevant to mention, much less criticize, Israel’s protection of Jewish sites as they were being fully protected by Israel, likely over-protected and allowed to encroach in unacceptable ways on Islamic sites.
Jordan, among the several Arab sponsors, praised UNESCO’s “historic decision” as supportive of the very genuine struggle to preserve the status quo in Jerusalem in the face of Israeli efforts to create as much of a Jewish city as possible, diminishing by stages the Palestinian and Islamic character of the place. In recent years there was particular reasons for concern about Israel’s effort to administer the holy sites in Jerusalem, especially Al Aqsa. Such an evenhanded role conflicted with Israel’s preoccupation with promoting the primacy of Jewish traditions and memories, and deliberately at the expense of Muslim and even Christian concerns.
There has been a series of violent encounters at Al Aqsa during several recent religious holidays. This much beloved mosque was increasingly endangered as a serene place of worship by Israeli policies and practices in recent years. Israel has in the past been severely criticized for the failure to fulfill its legal responsibilities with respect to holy sites in Jerusalem as ‘Occupying Power.’ With respect to Al Aqsa Israel was specifically charged with denying access to Muslim worshippers and not taking adequate steps to curb the campaign of settler extremists to assert aggressively Jewish claims in the mosque area leading to violent encounters.
Appraising the UNESCO Initiative
Overall, it would seem that there are two kinds of understandable reactions to this latest UNESCO initiative. It was entirely appropriate and even necessary for UNESCO members and the organization to complain about Israel’s failures to uphold its several responsibilities with respect to holy and heritage sites throughout Jerusalem. It is one more illustration of Israel’s pattern of defiance when it comes to discharging its obligations as set forth in the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties. In these circumstances, it was appropriate for UNESCO to act, and given developments in Jerusalem in recent years, even with a sense of urgency.
At the same time, it was inappropriate and seems irresponsible for the resolution to avoid an explicit acknowledgement of the Jewish connections to Temple Mount and Western Wall. The UNESCO drafters should have anticipated that by referencing only the Arabic names the resolutions would be sufficiently provocative to give Israel a rather plausible pretext for voicing a hostile reaction, and thereby evading the substantive criticism that was the core of the initiative. These wider politics also led a politically acute Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, to join Israel, the United States, and some European states in condemning the resolutions, calling them an irresponsible incitement of violence, swallowing Israel’s bait to place all blame on the provocation and give no attention at all to the genuine substantive issues that lie at the heart of UNESCO’s mission.
This unwillingness to mention both the Jewish and Arab names for the holy sites in Jerusalem had the dysfunctional effect of shifting attention away from the legitimate concerns of Palestinians and others in the Islamic world about the overall failure of Israel to uphold its responsibilities in Jerusalem, which included a variety of efforts to Judaize the city by stages. These unacceptable occupation policies verge on ethnic cleansing with a focus on undermining the Palestinian presence in relation to religious and cultural claims, residence rights, building permits, and family reunification. Thus, Israeli failures to carry out the legal responsibilities associated with being an Occupying Power with respect to non-Jewish holy and cultural heritage sites should be understood as an inflammatory implementation of Israel’s unlawful annexation of Jerusalem.
It is possible that this question of acknowledgement might not have avoided Israel’s condemnation of UNESCO’s initiative. It seems likely that Israel was enraged by this successful move by Palestine to sidestep Israel’s attempt to oppose any Palestinian effort to gain legitimacy and attention for its statehood claims. In this regard Israel’s most basic objection to the resolution likely involved the adoption of its title “Occupied Palestine,’ giving Palestine the status it is aspiring to establish on its own without any prior agreement by Israel. This by itself infuriates the Netanyahu leadership in Israel, which is evidently seeking to exclude any possibility of Palestinian statehood, and seeks to avoid the legal complications of occupying a foreign state as it proceeds with its own territorial expansion. Finally, it should be appreciated that Palestine has only resorted to this symbolic chessboard of UN legitimation after twenty years of frustration and setbacks resulting from Oslo diplomacy.
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. For six years (2008-2014) he acted as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine
This is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published in Middle East Eye, November 3, 2016.