UNESCO chief ‘deplores’ bid to name Western Wall part of Al-Aqsa

Irina Bokova postpones vote by executive board, urges it to avoid ‘inciting further tensions’ on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

The chief of the UN's education and culture agency, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, August 21, 2015. (AP/Raad Adayleh)
The chief of the UN's education and culture agency, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, August 21, 2015. (AP/Raad Adayleh)

The head of the United Nations cultural agency said Tuesday that she “deplores” a proposal to recognize the Western Wall as part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount above it.

The move, Irina Bokova warned on UNESCO’s website, “could be seen to alter the status of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls and incite further tensions.”

The executive board had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution submitted by Arab states that would officially recognize the Western Wall as part of the Muslim holy site, but Bokova postponed the vote until Wednesday. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sources say a number of countries are attempting to postpone the vote beyond Wednesday.

Israel has been working to block the resolution, calling it “an attempt to distort history and blur the connection between the Jewish people and its holiest place and create a false reality.”

In a statement, Bokova called on the UNESCO board “to take decisions that do not further inflame tensions on the ground and that encourage respect for the sanctity of the Holy Sites.”

“We all have responsibility to UNESCO’s mandate, to take decisions that promote dialogue, tolerance and peace,” Bokova said.

The director-general urged both sides to ensure that the cultural and religious heritage at the holy site is preserved and accessible to everyone, and encouraged a return to dialogue “in the spirit of mutual understanding.”

According to a report in the Hebrew-language paper Maariv, Bokova appealed to the UN agency’s organizing committee to postpone the vote after meeting with Israeli and Palestinian UNESCO envoys.

The Israeli envoy to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen, told Bokova that the text of the resolution was far worse compared to previous UNESCO resolution proposals, and amounted to an attempt to seize ownership of the Western Wall.

“Among European nations, all countries but one said that if the Palestinians don’t soften the text of the resolution they will oppose it. We are continuing our diplomatic efforts to the last minute,” Hacohen told the paper Tuesday.

According to the report, the Palestinian envoy refused during a meeting with Bokova to soften the wording of the text.

Jewish worshipers cover themselves with prayer shawls as they pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the priestly blessing which commemorates the Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt. April 6, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Jewish worshipers cover themselves with prayer shawls as they pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City during the priestly blessing on Passover, a holiday which commemorates the Israelites’ hasty departure from Egypt. April 6, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Western Wall is at the base of Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site. The hilltop compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of the two biblical Jewish temples. Today, it’s home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine and a key national symbol for the Palestinians.

The initial outbreak of the current round of violence between the two sides was fueled by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over the Temple Mount. Israel has adamantly denied the allegations, saying it has no plans to change the status quo at the site, where Jews are allowed to visit but not pray.

The UNESCO proposal also calls for the international community to condemn Israel for urging “its citizens to bear arms in light of [the] recent terror wave,” as well as for recent actions by Israel and the Israel Defense Forces in Jerusalem. The document refers to Jerusalem as “the occupied capital of Palestine.”

In addition, the Palestinians seek condemnation of ongoing Israeli archaeological excavations near the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as of the “aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967.”

On Monday, US Democratic Representatives Nita M. Lowey and Ted Deutch sent a letter Monday urging US ambassador to UNESCO, Crystal Nix-Hines, to block the draft resolution.

AP contributed to this report.

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