UNESCO panel okays softened text blasting Israel over Jerusalem activity
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UNESCO panel okays softened text blasting Israel over Jerusalem activity

Israel slams surprise vote by World Heritage Committee condemning 'illegal' Old City digs, urges delegates in Poland to stand in silence for Holocaust victims

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

View of Jerusalem showing the Old City in the foreground against new parts of the city in the background, January 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of Jerusalem showing the Old City in the foreground against new parts of the city in the background, January 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Council on Tuesday evening passed a resolution denouncing Israeli activity in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ten countries voted in favor of the text, which was significantly softer than previous resolutions. Only three member states — Jamaica, the Philippines and Burkina Faso — opposed the resolution, while eight abstained.

The Jordanian-sponsored resolution on the “Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls” called Israel “the occupying power,” and reaffirmed previous UN resolutions denying the country’s claims to East Jerusalem. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognized by the international community.

The body “regrets the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works, projects and other illegal practices in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law,” the measure read.

However, Decision 41 COM 7A.36 stressed “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” language not found in last year’s text. It also did not refer to the Temple Mount compound solely by its Muslim names, “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” as the 2016 resolution did, defining it instead as “a Muslim holy site of worship.”

Despite the text lacking the bite of previous resolutions passed by the body, it was still met with angry denunciations by Israeli officials.

“Nothing is more disgraceful than UNESCO declaring the world’s only Jewish state the ‘occupier’ of the Western Wall and Jerusalem’s Old City,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said in a statement released minutes after the vote.

“Yesterday, I toured the City of David and the Old City with UN ambassadors from around the world and explained the deep and ancient connection between the Jewish people and the holiest sites of our nation. No faux ‘heritage committee’ can sever the bonds between our people and Jerusalem.”

The Foreign Ministry slammed the decision as “bizarre and irrelevant … at the behest of the enemies of history and truth.”

“Israel is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and no UNESCO decision can change that decision,” a statement read, adding that the move was “sad, unneeded and pathetic.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, gestures as Israel's UN envoy Danny Danon, second right, looks on during a visit by UN ambassadors from nine countries who toured the City of David in Jerusalem, July 4, 2017. (Arnon Bossani and Frayda Leibtag)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, gestures as Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon, second right, looks on during a visit by UN ambassadors from nine countries who toured the City of David in Jerusalem, July 4, 2017. (Arnon Bossani and Frayda Leibtag)

The annual vote on a Jerusalem-themed resolution at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which is currently meeting in Krakow, Poland, was originally scheduled to take place next week. But Palestinian diplomats advanced the debate, presumably to blindside Israeli officials who are currently busy fighting another Palestinian initiative at UNESCO regarding the West Bank city of Hebron.

A vote to inscribe the Old City of Hebron on UNESCO’s World Heritage List is scheduled for Friday.

Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, Vietnam, Cuba and Zimbabwe voted in favor of the resolution.

Angola, Croatia, Finland, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Tanzania and South Korea abstained.

Dueling minutes of silence

In a speech responding to the vote, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, emphasized the fact that the resolution was passed in the country where much of the Holocaust transpired.

“We are assembled here, next to the largest mass grave of the Jewish people — but it is also the deepest darkest grave into which humanity had ever descended,” he said. “The sights, the sounds, the smells, the blood and the horrors that occurred here in the German Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau were not confined to the camp’s electrified fences. Indeed, under the right weather conditions, the smells of the crematorium maybe has reached the very place where we are now seated.”

Shama-Hacohen said he recently asked a colleague from an Arab state to be “sensitive to this sensitive location” and refrain from proposing anti-Jewish resolution regarding Jerusalem at this year’s meeting.

“I told them that it would help to build positive relations. But sadly, we are here today with not just one, but with two such anti-Israel resolutions,” he exclaimed.

Israel’s envoy also called for a minute of silence for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and urged Arab ambassadors to visit the Auschwitz death camp. “Maybe there you will understand that even in the darkest hours where they separated parents from children, dismembered live people, and where they separated human beings from their humanity, the Nazis could not succeed in separating the Jewish people from our eternal capital Jerusalem,” he said.

Hitler hosts Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)
Hitler hosts Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

“Let me conclude by saying that just as Hitler, the Nazis, and their partner — Haj Amin El Husseini [the Palestinian wartime mufti] — did not succeed, you will not succeed as well in denying the Holocaust or in your efforts to destroy Israel or the Jewish history,” he went on. “No politicized decision of UNESCO will ever move one brick from a wall in Jerusalem, nor will it succeed in separating between Jerusalem and the Jewish nation, nor will it succeed to rewrite our history in Jerusalem.”

After his speech, some delegates rose to their feet and observed a minute of silence. Others remained in their seats.

The Cuban ambassador protested that Israel, which is not a member of the committee, but merely has observer status, called for a minute of silence. She demanded a minute of silence in memory of Palestinian victims, which was observed by many delegations by clapping, though not by the Israeli diplomats in the room.

The Ophel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (courtesy of Andrew Shiva)
The Ophel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (courtesy of Andrew Shiva)

As much as Israel deplores resolutions denying its claims to East Jerusalem, the government’s main focus remains on thwarting Friday’s expected vote to declare the Old City of Hebron — including the Tomb of the Patriarchs — a Palestinian “world heritage site in danger.”

Israel, the US government, and several Jewish groups vociferously object to this move, and have called on UN leaders to prevent the vote.

A general view of the West Bank city of Hebron with the Cave of the Patriarchs, on January 18, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
A general view of the West Bank city of Hebron with the Cave of the Patriarchs, on January 18, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

“The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is sacred to three faiths, is in no immediate threat. Such a designation risks undermining the seriousness such an assessment by UNESCO should have,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wrote to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

“Many precious sites — from the Democratic Republic of 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,” she added.

On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry hit back at Haley, accusing her of being “racist and anti-Palestinian” and an ambassador for Israel, rather than the US, at the UN.

“This is not the first message in which the American ambassador has expressed her hidden malice and hatred toward the Palestinians,” the PA Foreign Ministry said in a press statement on Tuesday.

The statement went on to condemn “the crude intervention of the US ambassador in the work of UNESCO and the attempt to influence the independence of the UN organization by pressing the member countries of the World Heritage Committee to vote against the Palestinian request to put Hebron on the World Heritage List.”

It said that was indicative of “nothing less than a complete bias in favor of Israel, and confirms what has been reported in the corridors of the United Nations in New York. Recently, many foreign diplomats have expressed that Haley is an ambassador for Israel, more than an ambassador for her country, the United States of America.”

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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