Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister says Israel will break ties to UNESCO over vote on holy sites, then statement is retracted

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”…

"Tense calm" in East Jerusalem + West Bank

Where to begin?

Israel’s YNet news website is reporting today that Israel’s State President Shimon Peres “is unpleased by the government’s decision to renovate a selected list of heritage sites – which includes the Cave of the Patriarchs [which is also, for Palestinians and Muslims worldwide, the Ibrahimi or Abraham Mosque in Hebron] and Rachel’s Tomb [which is also, for Palestinians, the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem] – and is concerned by the move’s possible implications, Ynet has learned. The decision should not have been taken in the manner it was taken, but rather, in phases, Peres reportedly said in closed-door sessions over the weekend. ‘It was [or, should have been] possible to decide to focus on 10 sites at this time, and take more decisions later’, Peres was quoted as saying. Following several days of local riots, the president expressed his concern about the violence that may follow in Palestinian areas, while also referring to Israel’s responsibility on this front. ‘It depends on us too’, he noted. ‘We must conduct ourselves cautiously and with restraint’ … Peres added privately [however] that he intends to continue his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as long as the latter works to renew negotiations with the Palestinians”.

Just for background, YNet added in its report, it was just last Sunday that “the cabinet approved a wide-scale plan to preserve and renovate ‘heritage sites’ at a cost of NIS 400 million (about $106 million dollars). At the last moment, after being pressured by right-wing elements and ministers, Netanyahu decided to add to the plan two sites located in the West Bank. After Hamas called for a third intifada and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a ‘religious war’, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayer in Hebron, called on his people to continue their struggle, but stressed that the Palestinians would not let the Israeli decision drag them to a state of violence. Netanyahu himself has tried to ease the tensions with the Palestinians several times, saying it was all a misunderstanding. ‘We have no intention of changing the status quo regarding Jewish or Muslim praying. We want to maintain the current prayer arrangements. The renovations were carried out in coordination with the Waqf. These are necessary repairs’, the prime minister said”. This YNet article can be read in full here .

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Netanyahu had made his second or third statement in three days, trying to “defuse” the situation — however, he failed (as Israeli politicians generally do fail) to speak directly or to reach out to make any empathetic acknowledgement of Palestinian concerns: “In an interview to Israeli TV, Benjamin Netanyahu called the affair a ‘misunderstanding’, saying there was no intention to infringe on Muslim freedom of worship. He said the intent was to protect and maintain the sites. ‘This is not a political decision. It doesn’t change anything in that sense. It is concerned with preserving heritage’, Netanyahu said. This AP report is posted here.

A Haaretz editorial published today said that a widely-lambasted new campaign by Israel’s Information and Diaspora Ministry to improve the country’s image is “more than ridiculous, the campaign is disconcerting. ‘Explaining Israel’ [the name of this public relations campaign] reveals the worldview of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: limitless self-righteousness, eternal hostility toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, a view of Palestinians as invaders and inciters, and commitment to developing the West Bank settlements. This PR drive must not be viewed just as a gimmick, or an attempt to justify the unnecessary existence of the Information Ministry. Instead, it represents how the government wants its citizens to understand their country and represent it to the world. The campaign’s Web site waxes lyrical over the beauty of Judea and Samaria and the grand achievements of the settlement endeavor, even directing visitors to the links of West Bank regional councils. The ministry warns against the evacuation of settlements and withdrawal from elevated areas, which, it says, would turn Israel into a firing range for rockets and render it vulnerable to invasion. Palestinian communities are not part of its landscape – the Palestinian Authority is portrayed as an incitement factory bent on destroying Israel, one that falsifies demographic figures and is headed by a Holocaust denier. Still, the ministry recommends that Israelis ‘say with conviction that Israel will never lose hope for peace’. It is difficult to square these messages with Netanyahu’s frequent calls for ‘two states for two peoples’ and a return to peace talks. Does the prime minister really want to talk to [people he says ares] inciters and Holocaust deniers? What would they talk about – about withdrawal, which the government believes would endanger Israel?” This Haaretz editorial is published here.

Along similar lines, Jerusalem-based writer Gershom Gorenberg wrote, as part of a book review published in the latest issue of “The American Prospect“, that “You might expect Netanyahu to be careful about playing with holy fire. In September 1996, early in his previous term as prime minister, he approved opening a tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, otherwise known [i.e., to Palestinians and the Muslim world] as Haram al-Sharif. That set off a week-long mini war between Israel and Palestinians. How could he so easily give in to pressure and repeat the mistake of asserting ownership of contested holy places? While we’re at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site? I could give quick responses based on Netanyahu’s famously flawed personality. But deeper answers to these questions — and quite a few other Middle Eastern puzzles — can be found in Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg’s remarkably insightful recent book, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine. The starting point of Grinberg’s analysis is that Israel doesn’t have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: ‘If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is — where its borders are — we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them’. Internationally, of course, Israel’s border is commonly regarded as the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. For internal Israeli legal purposes, the Green Line is generally where the state ends and occupied territory begins; it defines ‘the area … ruled by democratic law and elective government’, as Grinberg notes. But the Green Line doesn’t appear on Israeli maps. And for purposes of military and economic control, the state includes the West Bank with its Palestinian population. (Gaza’s status, at the moment, is even fuzzier.) Moreover, in the imagination of most Israeli Jews, it seems, the line between those who belong to the nation and those who don’t is ethnic: Jews are in. Palestinians are out, even if they live in Israel and vote. If you find this all confusing, then you understand perfectly. The reality is a mess … With violence low at the moment, most Israelis can imagine that Israeli security measures alone ended the intifada and that the current quiet can last indefinitely. This is an illusion, and a dangerous one: It ignores the Palestinian Authority’s role in restoring order in the West Bank. It also ignores the frustration with blocked diplomacy that is again rising among Palestinians — and international impatience with the Netanyahu government’s foot-dragging. Imagination shapes behavior. Believing the illusion that things can go on as they are, Israelis have largely abandoned debate of alternatives. The space for politics remains closed. So with no discussion, responding to a moment’s pressure, ignoring the dangers, Netanyahu can include two West Bank holy places in a list of Israeli heritage sites. Netanyahu wouldn’t think to consult Palestinians’ representative leadership first. He sees them as outside the borders of his politics … In physical terms, Netanyahu’s imagined Israel is the whole land. In political terms, it includes only Jews. It takes no effort to convince him to include tombs in Hebron and Bethlehem in a map of Israeli heritage sites. But a plea by Israeli critics to include non-Jewish sites within the Green Line will sound to him like static on a bad cell-phone connection — noise without meaning”. This Gershom Gorenberg article in The American Prospect can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, this “tense calm” is not showing signs of expanding. As Haaretz reported Saturday, “Scores of Jordanian politicians and trade union members staged a sit-in at the Trade Unions Complex in Amman on Saturday to denounce Israel’s addition of two West Bank holy sites to a list of Jewish heritage centers. The participants, including Muslim Brotherhood figures and leading trade unionists, chanted slogans and raised placards calling for concrete action against Israel, the declaration of jihad (holy war) and the rupture of ties with the Jewish state by all Muslim countries”. This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

UPDATE: Jordan’s King Abdallah the second weighed in on this crisis on Sunday evening, and according to a report on the Jerusalem Post website (probably picked up from Palestinian Televisions nightly news broadcast), he was quoted as condemning “Israel’s ‘provocative measures in Jerusalem’ … after a day in which security forces stormed the Temple Mount [Haram ash-Sharif] to quell Arab rioting. Abdullah made the remark after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. Abdullah called on the international community to take immediate steps to protect Jerusalem’s holy sites”. This JPost report is posted here.

And, as the AP reported earlier, “The Organization of Islamic Conference, representing 57 predominantly Muslim states, strongly condemned the Israeli government’s decision, calling it illegal and an attempt ‘to trigger religious confrontation’.  In a statement issued after a meeting of its ambassadors at UN headquarters in New York, the OIC urged the UN Security Council to take immediate steps ‘to compel the Israeli government to revoke this illegitimate action’.  It called on the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the UN, the U.S., the European Union and Russia — ‘to stand up to this blatant act of aggression which represents a serious provocation to Muslims … and has the serious potential to incite yet another cycle of violence to further destabilize the fragile situation in the occupied Palestinian territories’.”  The U.S. State Department has also criticized the move more than once in the past week. The AP report said that “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday the decision was ‘provocative’ and unhelpful to the goal of restarting peace talks”.  The AP report is posted here.

The repetition of the peace talks mantra is mesmerizing, but wearing a bit thin. It has been more than a year since Palestinian leadership broke off the inconclusive Annapolis process, in the early days of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009).

On a third day of heavy rains, Israeli police entered (or “stormed”, as the Israeli press said) the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif compound at least twice on Sunday (though they did not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque itself). Clashes then spread to other areas in East Jerusalem, then died down for the moment. Some 16 Palestinians and 4 Israeli police personnel were injured by nightfall, and 7 Palestinians were reportedly detained.

The Jerusalem Post earlier reported that “police banned men under the age of 50 from the site on Sunday. Meanwhile in the West Bank, the IDF was on high alert on Sunday out of fear that settlers, celebrating Purim, would clash with Palestinians. On Saturday, the IDF clamped a closure on the territories for the duration of Purim which will end Monday night in Jerusalem. Additional forces will be deployed in defined ‘hot spots’ to prevent friction between Palestinians and settlers. While Hebron was quiet over the weekend, defense officials said there were fears that violence would escalate in the city as well as other parts of the West Bank, particularly in northern Samaria, on Purim day”.  This JPost report is published here.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad went to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron to perform his Friday prayers.
Now, Ma’an News Agency reported that “The Fayyad government is due to hold its weekly cabinet meeting in an office the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday, in protest against Israel’s decision to include the Ibrahimi Mosque on a list of Israeli heritage sites. Hebron Governor Hussein Al-Araj said the move from Ramallah to Hebron was a signal Palestinian Authority rejected the Israeli cabinet’s decision, highlighting that Israel lacks the sovereignty needed to change Palestinian landmarks on land occupied by Israel in 1967. ‘[This] is a violation to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the Hebron Agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority’, he said”.  This Ma’an report is published here.