Haaretz is reporting tonight that Israel will “reduce cooperation” with UNESCO after a vote in Paris last week concerning two heritage sites Israel has claimed for its own — Rachel’s Tomb at the entrance to Bethlehem, and the immensely important Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
The Haaretz account said: “Referring to the [Bethlehem] structure as the ‘Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb’, UNESCO’s board voted 44 to one [the U.S.], with 12 abstentions, to reaffirm that the site was ‘an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law’.” The Haaretz report can be read in full here.
Neither site was controlled by of the State of Israel at its founding in May 1948. Both Bethlehem and Hebron are part of the West Bank, which was under Jordanian occupation and administration from May 1948 until the June 1967 “Six-Day” war, when Israeli forces conquered the West Bank, and have been in control ever since.
There is a mosque [Bilal bin Rabah] next to Rachel’s Tomb — and it is now virtually inaccessible to Palestinians due to Israeli security measures, including construction of The Wall.
The Ibrahimi Mosque [which contains the Cave of the Patriarchs] is under Israeli military control, and there is a forced sharing that — particularly since the February 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers at dawn prayer by an American-born Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, from nearby Kirya Arba — sometimes does deprive Muslims of access, as happened during a major Jewish festival this past weekend.
All religious sites under Israeli administration are supposed to be accessible to members of all faiths, according to the Oslo Accords. But security measures trump the Olso Accords.
Earlier today, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post, that “relations with UNESCO would not be restored until it retracted its statement last week that two ancient biblical sites – the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb – were an integral part of the ‘occupied’ Palestinian territories. Ayalon said that the Palestinian Authority was behind the statement, which he added, was issued by the automatic Arab majority on the UNESCO board. It is another attempt by the PA to delegitimize Israel, he said”. This is reported here.
A UNESCO press release describing the vote on this and four other related issues can be read here.
YNet reported that Ayalon told the Knesset: “We should see the organization’s call to remove the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb from the list of Israel’s national sites as part of Palestinian escalation in international organizations … Israel rejects all five of UNESCO’s decisions and has no intention of cooperating with the organization … We’ve decided to suspend our cooperation with UNESCO in these fields, and with regards to previous decisions”. This is posted here
However, Haaretz reported, “Israel’s reaction was not quite as serious as it first appeared. Ayalon’s spokeswoman said that Israel would cut off relations with UNESCO altogether – but shortly after said that the announcement had been made in error and retracted the statement”.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu denounced the UNESCO vote as “absurd”, in a statement that said: “The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd. If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?”
These statements specifically refer to the sites as “part of the Jewish heritage”, while other statements have said they are part of “the cradle of Jewish history”, rather than specifically as “religious sites” [such as synagogues].
A Jerusalem Post editorial published yesterday said that “UNESCO, the United Nations body in charge of preserving historical sites, went too far this time. There is a lot of chutzpah in this post-modernist era of ‘deconstruction’ and ‘revision’. Warmly cherished religious faiths and customs are reduced to ‘false consciousness’. Nations with their own unique ethnicity and proud traditions become ‘imagined communities’. Foundational histories are reduced to nothing more than subjective ‘narratives’. But even in this radically relativistic intellectual atmosphere, the latest UNESCO decision stands out. For this was a particularly blatant attempt to erase Jewish ties to the land of Israel … The move is seen in some quarters as a response to Israel’s decision in February to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb on a list of national heritage sites that would receive additional funding for refurbishing and for the development of educational tours”. This JPost editorial can be read in full here
The JPost editorial stated that “Jordan denied Israel the ‘free access to the Holy Places [including the Kotel – the Western Wall] and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives’ stipulated in the April 1949 Armistice”, and said that “Israel has done a better job at maintaining equitable access to religious [emphasis added] sites for all faiths”…