November 14, 2010
Israel and UNESCOBy Véronique Chemla
It has become quite a routine. For more than thirty years, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)'s Executive Board has adopted, by consensus during each of its two biannual governing body meetings, biased decisions singling out the State of Israel for criticism.
Several Arab or Muslim countries have regularly presented draft decisions that deal with safeguarding the Old City of Jerusalem and education and cultural institutions in the Arab-occupied territories.
While the themes were within UNESCO's mandate for protection of cultural heritage, the singling out of Israel for criticism is not.
In April 2010, five items were introduced by those states on the agenda at the 184th session of UNESCO's Executive Board.
Two items covered Jerusalem's Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate and the city's cultural heritage. Two others expressed their "concern about the harmful impact of the Separation Wall" on the "activities of [Palestinian] cultural and educational institutions" and of "the blockade of the Gaza Strip" on the reconstruction of Gaza. The fifth draft resolution urged "the Israeli authorities to remove" the "two Palestinian sites of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem" from "its national heritage list."
That last draft decision was sponsored by seven Arab countries and was a response to the Israeli government's February 2010 decision to include the Biblical matriarch's tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in its national heritage list.
That inscription aimed at justifying the connection of the State of Israel to its land and at renovating both sites, but it was condemned by President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas and Hezb'allah leaders, and many Arab and Muslim countries, as well as the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference).
In April 2010, the Executive Board's 184th session did not adopt those five draft decisions because it did not reach a consensus "despite considerable efforts."
It decided to postpone the examination of those items. The disappointed Algerian delegate criticized consensus as "contrary to democracy" because it allows "a minority to stop the process."
On October 21, 2010, during the 185th session, the Executive Board's 58 members adopted those five decisions by a majority. U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO David T. Killion declared, "more and more, UNESCO is exploited as a means to single out Israel. This undermines UNESCO's credibility."
Killion's Israeli counterpart, Nimrod Barkan, vehemently deplored that his country had been singled out.
The delegate of the Palestine Observer Mission to UNESCO thanked all countries that had voted for those decisions.
For the first time in UNESCO's history, the Executive Board's elected president, Russian Federation Ambassador Eleonora Valentinovna Mitrofanov, decided that Barkan's speech would not be included as pronounced, as is custom, in the Executive Board's verbatim records.
UNESCO published a press release about those five adopted decisions, but not on any other event or decision that took place during the governing body meeting, with the exception of one controversial UNESCO prize.
Surprisingly, the Israeli embassy in France remained silent on the entire proceedings, as did the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Similarly, no statement was issued by the U.S. State Department, although the U.S. had voted against all the anti-Israeli decisions.
After Israeli media denounced the UNESCO decision which "palestinized" those two biblical sites, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry reacted on October 28, 2010.
Netanyahu stated that he "regretted that an organization which was created to promote the heritage of historical sites around the world was trying for political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its heritage."
The Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry condemned the decision which "ignores the [history] that Rachel's Tomb was never a mosque."
Rabbi of the Western Wall and other Holy Sites in Jerusalem Shmuel Rabinovitch underlined that UNESCO "was distorting history ... The Muslims never claimed [Matriarch Rachel's Tomb] was a holy place for them." Rachel's Tomb is a Jewish pilgrimage in Bethlehem and is under Israeli control. Rabinovitch added, "Israel should think carefully about whether or not to cooperate with UNESCO in the future."
Jerusalem and Palestine Grand Mufti Mohammed Hussein alleged that Rachel's Tomb "has always been a mosque."
However, in 2007, journalist Nadav Shragai found out that WAKF members qualified that site as "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque" for the first time in 1996. Before that year, Muslims had called the site as "Kubat Rahel" ("Rachel's Tomb" in Arabic).
On November 3, Deputy of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon "announced the suspension of Israel's cooperation with the organization in the implementation of the five resolutions until these outrageous pronouncements are rescinded." He added, "... [T]hese resolutions, which were adopted based on the automatic Arab majority in the organization, are another attempt led by the Palestinian Authority to delegitimize the State of Israel."
The U.S. Mission to UNESCO website published a statement which rejected those anti-Israel decisions.
On November 10, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the U.N.'s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during their meeting in New York, "The Jewish nation has had a deep connection to [these two biblical sites] for close to 4,000 years." Netanyahu also urged Ban to change that UNESCO decision.
Those resolutions may mark a turning point for both countries at UNESCO. According to an observer, they revealed a failure of their efforts to promote constructive dialogue within UNESCO's legitimate mandate in education, science, and culture.
UNESCO remains an international U.N. organization where Israel is singled out, even after Bulgarian Ambassador Irina Bokova was elected on October 15, 2009 as the UNESCO Director-General.
Moreover, the Israeli government seems to underestimate or consider unimportant the stakes in that U.N. specialized agency. Thus, the State of Israel mandated just one ambassador to two major Paris-based international institutions: UNESCO and OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). And it seems to favor the OECD...