At UNESCO, Syria complains of Israeli archaeological digs – inside Syria
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At UNESCO, Syria complains of Israeli archaeological digs – inside Syria

Cultural body asks Israel to answer claim it’s excavating Bir Ajam; Israeli envoy: That’s ‘Syrian territory,’ allegations ‘ludicrous’

A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeeper on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeeper on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Syrian government on Thursday complained about alleged Israeli archaeological excavations at Bir Ajam on the Syrian Golan Heights, drawing an irate response from Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO.

The complaint, which was formally forwarded by a senior UNESCO official with a request for an Israeli response, was dismissed by Israel as “ludicrous.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has been a venue at which Arab and Muslim states have promoted a series of anti-Israel resolutions, including a text approved at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee this week that characterized the holy sites on and around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as exclusively Muslim.

In a letter to Israel’s envoy to the organization, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Culture Francesco Bandarin said the group had received a complaint from the Syrian government that “brought to our attention the fact that archaeological excavations in the village of Bir Ajam in the Governorate of Quneitra have been taking place since 11 July 2016.”

Bandarin continued, “As you know, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic are Party, asserts that necessary cultural property preservation measures shall be taken in close cooperation with the relevant national authorities.”

He asked Shama-Hacohen to report back to the organization after consulting the “relevant Israeli authorities.”

Shama-Hacohen appeared nonplussed.

Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In an interview with The Times of Israel Thursday, he noted that Bir Ajam lies beyond the 1974 ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Golan, putting the site beyond the IDF’s defensive line.

“This is in Syrian territory. There are no Israeli excavations going on there whatsoever,” Shama-Hacohen said.

A public statement from the Israeli Permanent Mission to UNESCO in Paris did not mince words, calling the complaint “ludicrous.”

Anyone who thought that the climax of absurdity at UNESCO took place yesterday [in the World Heritage Committee], or that Syria’s problem is the civil war that has claimed over 600,000 lives and millions of wounded and displaced, and anyone who thought the systematic destruction of culture and heritage by the Islamic State is Syria’s [major] archaeological problem, should read the letter sent by UNESCO today to the Israeli ambassador to the organization, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, in the wake of a complaint by the Syrian government about archaeological digs they claim are taking place in the Quneitra area.

In the statement, Shama-Hacohen was quoted as saying: “This complaint is ludicrous, and demonstrates the inappropriate ways the organization is used by Arab states [in their campaign] against Israel.”

Illustrative: Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with Assad regime forces, seen from the Golan Heights in 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)
Illustrative: Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria’s Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with Assad regime forces, seen from the Golan Heights in 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

He called the complaint “not surprising,” as Syria’s ambassador to the organization “goes out of her way to avoid sitting next to me at any forum. Their situation…deserves compassion on humanitarian grounds, especially if [Syrian leaders] have the free time to to engage in these frivolities.”

Nevertheless, he said, Israel’s policy was to “check and respond substantively to any complaint, even if it is ludicrous.”

The Israeli mission is currently attempting to determine whether the complaint might have been garbled by the Syrian diplomats or UNESCO officials, and was originally a warning to Israel against potential military strikes in the area.

Israel has on occasion responded with artillery fire and airstrikes to cross-border stray fire from Syria. The Quneitra area has seen heavy fighting over the past five years between Syrian government forces and rebels.

Even if Shama-Hacohen’s speculation that the complaint was a case of broken telephone is correct, it remains highly unlikely that Syrian archaeologists are carrying on a dig at Bir Ajam, so close to Israeli forces in an area long contested by rebel forces.

Reached for comment, the Israel Antiquities Authority, which oversees Israeli archaeological digs, said there was no IAA-related activity in Bir Ajam.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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