The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed an anti-Israel resolution for the second time in less than a week on Friday, voting in a stormy session to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank, inscribed as a Palestinian world heritage site in danger.
The vote took place by secret ballot at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s 41st annual summit, which is currently taking place in Krakow, Poland.
Twelve countries voted in favor of the move to inscribe Hebron’s Old City, including the Tomb, as an endangered heritage site, while three opposed it. Six countries abstained.
Votes to inscribe sites onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List are usually done by a show of hands among all the member states. But three countries — Poland, Croatia and Jamaica — requested a secret ballot. Several states objected, leading to a shouting match between delegates, and Israeli Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen storming to the desk of the session’s chairman to make Israel’s case. The kerfuffle ended after the chairman, a Polish diplomat, called in security.
Shama-Hacohen accused the session’s chairman of not conducting a truly secret ballot, as the chairman ordered the delegates to come up to the front of the hall and put a sealed envelope into a box in front of the other diplomats. The Israeli envoy claimed he was promised the vote would take place behind a curtain, hoping that would enable delegates from moderate Arab states to reject the Palestinian-led bid.
The membership of this year’s Heritage committee includes five countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties, and a number of others that routinely support pro-Palestinian resolutions. The 21 member states are Angola, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon slammed the decision.
“This attempt to sever the ties between Israel and Hebron is shameful and offensive, and eliminates UNESCO’s last remaining shred of credibility. To disassociate Israel from the burial grounds of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our nation is an ugly display of discrimination, and an act of aggression against the Jewish people.”
The Palestinians hailed it as a victory against Israeli and American opposition.
“This vote is a success for a diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of the Israeli and American pressure on the member states … and a failure and a tremendous defeat Israel,” Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a statement.
“Despite the aggressive Israeli campaign, spreading lies, distorting and falsifying facts about the Palestinian right, the world recognized our right to register Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque under Palestinian sovereignty and on the World Heritage List,” Maliki added.
“Israel’s occupation of our state does not give it sovereignty over any patch of our land in any way,” Maliki said.
Earlier this week, the World Heritage Committee passed a resolution denying Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel condemned the text, although it was much softer than similar resolutions passed in previous years.
On Tuesday, the heritage committee backed the Jerusalem resolution 10 to three, with eight abstentions.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs, revered as the Biblical burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, is now the third cultural site on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” that is registered as located in the “State of Palestine.” The other two are the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem and the “cultural landscape of Southern Jerusalem,” around Battir.
Israel says the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP the Hebron motion was “fake news.”
“They are trying to rewrite Jewish history and the history of the region,” he said.
Nahshon accused the Palestinian Authority of seeking to pretend that the Tomb of the Patriarchs “is actually part of the Palestinian national heritage.”
Israel had been working behind the scenes against the resolution, with the help of the American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who has called on UNESCO’s focus and attention to not be “wasted on this sort of symbolic action.”
In May, Israel reacted furiously when UNESCO’s executive board ratified a contentious 2016 resolution denying any legal or historical Israeli links to Jerusalem and calling Israel an “occupying power” in its capital. That resolution also criticized the Israeli government for archaeological projects in the capital and in Hebron and lambasted its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In that resolution, the UN agency wrote that Hebron (and Bethlehem) was an “integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” and that it “deplores the ongoing Israeli excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and of a Wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalil/Hebron which are illegal under international law and harmfully affect the authenticity and integrity of the site.”
Tuesday’s Jerusalem resolution softened the language somewhat, stressing “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” and not referring to the Temple Mount compound solely by its Muslim names, “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” as the 2016 resolution did, defining it as “a Muslim holy site of worship.”
The resolution slammed “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.”
Israeli officials angrily rejected the resolution, despite the softened language, with the Foreign Ministry saying the decision cannot change the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people.
“Another bizarre and irrelevant decision by UNESCO, that is acting on behalf of the enemies of history and the truth,” the Foreign Ministry said in statement. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and no decision by UNESCO can change that reality. It is sad, unnecessary and pathetic. It is worth noting that the decision didn’t even get a majority of votes.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement welcomed the vote. Fatah spokesman in Europe Jamal Nazzal said it was “historic justice” and was “another reflection of the international position which opposes Israeli policy, and of our position which rejects recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the occupation.”
The annual vote on a Jerusalem-themed resolution was originally scheduled to take place next week. But Palestinian diplomats advanced the debate, presumably to blindside Israeli officials who were busy fighting off the Hebron motion.