The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is at it again, passing two anti-Israel resolutions last week.
The first resolution was not new and continued a UNESCO tradition of denying Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem. It asserted that all “legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular, the ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” The resolution passed without an absolute majority, with ten nations approving the measure, three opposing it and eight abstaining.
The second resolution was new, in that it listed the Old City of Hebron, including the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, as an endangered world heritage site.
The resolutions have been seen as attempts to undermine the Jewish People’s connection to its most holy sites – the Old City of Jerusalem containing the Western Wall and Temple Mount, and Cave of Patriarchs and Matriarchs – which is believed to be the final resting place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives.
From Israel’s perspective, the core issue is about recognising Jewish history. As Tovah Lazaroff wrote in the Jerusalem Post:
“The tomb is a particularly complicated spot because part of the building has Jewish sanctuaries and the rest of the space houses the Ibrahimi Mosque. At issue,however, is less the question of one more Palestinian victory toward statehood, but rather world recognition of Jewish history irrespective of geopolitical boundaries.
In 2015 and 2016, the Palestinians submitted triennial resolutions to UNESCO that ignored Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s Old City, referring to the Temple Mount solely by its Muslim name of al-Haram/ al-Sharif and to the Western Wall as the Buraq Plaza.
This year, the resolutions were toned down and more neutral language was restored, but they still make reference to the previous texts. As Israel works to ensure that future Jerusalem resolutions reflect Jewish history, it must now prepare for a similar campaign with regard to Hebron.”
Twelve countries voted in favour of the Hebron resolution, three opposed it and six countries abstained. The vote took place in secret, following a request by Poland, Croatia and Jamaica.
The reaction from Israel was swift. Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, immediately mocked the decision and said sarcastically: “Sorry … I have a very urgent … sorry, Mr Chairman … it’s my plumber in my apartment in Paris. There is a huge problem in my toilet, and it’s more important than the decision you just adopted, thank you.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tweeted “UNESCO seems intent on sprouting anti-Jewish lies, while it remains silent as the region’s heritage is destroyed by brutal extremists.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the resolution as “delusional” and ordered that another US$1 million be withdrawn from Israel’s UN funding, and instead be used towards establishing a museum showcasing Jewish heritage in Hebron.
Netanyahu said, “The connection between the Jewish People and Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of purchase and of history which may be without parallel in the history of Peoples” and he recited the Bible:
“And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant… And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre – the same is Hebron – in the land of Canaan. And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of aburying-place by the children of Heth.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was scathing of the resolution and said “The UNESCO vote on Hebron is tragic on several levels. It represents an affront to history.” Haley added “It undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful… And it further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency. Today’s vote does no one any good and causes much harm.” Haley said that the US would now review “the appropriate level of its continued engagement at UNESCO.”
Prior to the vote, Haley wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in which she argued:
“The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is sacred to three faiths, is under no immediate threat. Such a designation risks undermining the seriousness such an assessment by UNESCO should have…
Many precious sites – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Libya to Iraq to Syria – are under real and imminent threat of destruction today. They urgently demand UNESCO’s full and immediate attention, which should not be wasted on this sort of symbolic action…
As the United States is engaged in trying to increase the chance of a peace deal that is in the best interest of both Israel and the Palestinians, this effort at UNESCO – the motto of which is ‘Building Peace in the Minds of Men and Women’ – is particularly ill-timed and unfortunate.”
Since her appointment, Haley has been outspoken in condemning bias against Israel at the UN. She wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in June, in which she said the UN Security Council “must end its practice of wrongly singling out Israel for criticism.”
Israel often faces an automatic majority of Arab and Muslim majority states at the UN and therefore often loses the diplomatic battle in this arena. As a result, the Palestinians are politicising UN agencies including UNESCO. Seth Frantzman notes in the Jerusalem Post that the sites being listed by the Palestinians as being in “danger” are not actually in any danger:
“The Palestinian Authority has exploited UNESCO to declare all three of its sites ‘in danger,’ including Hebron, Battir and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Old City of Jerusalem is also on the list of 54 UNESCO sites in ‘danger.’ This puts Palestinian sites ‘in danger’ up there with Libya, Mali, Iraq, Congo, Syria and Yemen. The other countries are undergoing vicious wars, and in Iraq and Syria sites have been totally razed by ISIS. ISIS demolished Hatra and blew up parts of Palmyra. Battir, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem’s Old City are not in danger in the way other sites UNESCO lists as ‘in danger’ are. The decision to keep voting them onto the ‘danger’ list is part of a Palestinian campaign against Israel, not an honest weighing of whether these sites face any danger. For instance, the Bethlehem sites are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, yet in ‘danger’ ostensibly from Israel.”
Now that Hebron has been added to the list of “endangered sites”, it will continue to come up for discussion at UNESCO, which will likely become another “Israel bashing session”. The politicised anti-Israel obsession at UNESCO is only detracting from necessary discussions on ancient sites that are actually endangered, as well those that have already been destroyed by terrorists across the Middle East.