UNESCO Fails to Condemn Hamas

All objective observers of Middle Eastern affairs understand that Hamas is determined to eliminate the State of Israel. They should also understand that by its behavior in March and April 2013 Hamas, is prepared to eliminate the non-Arab or pre-Arab history of areas it controls, in similar fashion to the actions of extreme Islamists in Pakistan and Mali who have destroyed evidence of other cultures.

The Anthedon seaport is the oldest and the first known port of Gaza, and had a continuous history from 800 B.C. to 1100 A.D. during which time it was occupied by a series of rulers from neo-Assyrians to Islamic dynasties. Originally a Phoenician harbor and later a Roman site, the area of the seaport predates any Arab settlement. It was an important link in the interchange between Europe and the Middle East as the evidence of historical and archeological evolution shows.

Because of the evidence, ruins of Roman temples and villas, mosaic floors, stone walls of the Roman period, Hellenistic and Persian constructions, underwater archeology, the Anthedon Harbor, which had been rediscovered in 1997, was in 2012 designated an international heritage site by UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) which is located in Paris. This was preceded on October 31, 2011 by the appointment of Palestine, which had had observer status since 1974, as a full member of UNESCO by the overwhelming vote of 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions. As result the United States, which has been providing 22 per cent of the budget of UNESCO, stopped its payment of $60 million to the organization.

The Hamas-run government which rules Gaza does have a ministry of tourism but so far has given little evidence of any real concern for Education, Science, or Culture, or interest in preserving monuments. It made this abundantly clear in March 2013 by its reckless attitude and indifference concerning the heritage site of Anthedon. The military wing of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassan Brigades, destroyed part of the harbor in order to expand its military training in the area which had begun in 2002.

A reasonable expectation would be that UNESCO would condemn this destruction by Hamas of a site that it itself had called historic. But the behavior and decisions of UNESCO, like those of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, often depart from objectivity and rationality. (In view of this, one is not surprised that in March 2012 Syria, a country that was slaughtering its own people in a civil war, was voted, by 35 to 8, to stay as a member of the Human Rights panel of UNESCO.)

By coincidence, the 191st session of the Executive Board of UNESCO, its biannual meeting, is taking place in Paris on April 10-25, 2013. The agenda of the meeting does not include the destruction of the historic harbor. It does however include five items concerning Palestinian issues. One affirms the existence of Palestinian sites at two places revered by the Jewish community, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. Other items focus on protection of educational and cultural institutions in the "occupied Palestinian territories," on the reconstruction and development of Gaza, and on criticism of Israel.

The decision of UNESCO about the two holy places had been a crucial indication of the organizational bias. Israel had announced that the two sites, one of which, Rachel's Tomb, is regarded as the third holiest site in Judaism and a place of Jewish pilgrimage, should be included among its national heritage sites. However, UNESCO, led by its director Irina Bokova, declared that the two were not exclusively Jewish sites but also belonged to Christians and Muslims. Going beyond its cultural concerns into political polemics, UNESCO held that to include them as Jewish sites would harm the "peace process."

UNESCO not only ignored the fact that Christians and Muslims had built over the structures at the sites during the Crusades and the Muslim conquest of the area. It also urged Israel to remove the sites from its heritage list because they were an "integral part of the occupied territories." It was thus minimizing the connection between Israel and the Jewish people and their cultural heritage as well as making a political statement.

In view of his more recent remarks about Israel being "a crime against humanity," it was not surprising that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked at the time that the two places are "not and never will be Jewish sites, but are Islamic sites." Most recently, in February 2013, Palestinian rioters have thrown firebombs and grenades at Rachel's Tomb, arguably as a consequence of the UNESCO decision,

Even some individuals in Gaza more concerned with human rights than UNESCO appears to be have appealed to the Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, to "rescue" the historic site. They shame UNESCO in arguing that what happened at the ancient Harbor of Gaza is a serious harm to Palestinian culture and history.

For some time UNESCO has been politicized as another weapon in the non-military campaign against Israel, a country that has been singled out for alleged violations of international resolutions and human rights. It is unclear why, at this moment when the United States is concerned with financial problems, the Obama Administration is requesting another $77.7 million to fund UNESCO. In 1984, President Reagan withdrew the United States from UNESCO because of its poor management and its hostility to "the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press." The U.S. in 2003, believing that UNESCO had introduced some reforms, did rejoin the organization. Yet the fact that it was only in 2011 that UNESCO ended its financial support for a Palestinian children's magazine that featured anti-Semitic content and praise of Adolf Hitler suggests that real reform is a long way off.