Israel furious as Unesco criticises treatment of Jerusalem’s holy sites

Vote on resolution described by Binyamin Netanyahu as ‘theatre of the absurd’

The Dome of the Rock, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Dome of the Rock, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

 

Israel has condemned a resolution criticising its treatment of the holy sites in Jerusalem. After the resolution was adopted on Wednesday by the World Heritage Committee of Unesco, Israel accused the United Nations body of denying Jewish links to the most sacred places in Judaism.

The Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) committee, at its annual meeting in Paris, agreed to retain Jerusalem’s Old City on its list of endangered world heritage sites and criticised Israel for its continuous refusal to let Unesco experts access Jerusalem’s holy sites to determine their conservation status.

In a secret ballot, 10 countries voted in favour of the resolution, presented by Palestine and Jordan, with two countries voting against and eight abstaining.

The resolution was similar to a Unesco decision last week which referred to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, solely by its Muslim names, “al-Aqsa mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif,” and defined it only as “a Muslim holy site of worship”.

Israel responded to the earlier decision by cutting all ties with Unesco and accusing the world body of ignoring the fact that the two biblical temples were located at the site.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu described Wednesday’s decision as a “continuation of the theatre of the absurd”.

“The forces of radical Islam are destroying mosques, churches and archeological sites, whereas Israel is the only state in the region that preserves them and enables freedom of worship for all religions,” he said. “The Unesco World Heritage Committee deserves to be censured, not Israel.”

Shortly after Wednesday’s vote, Israel’s Unesco ambassador, Carmel Shama Hacohen, called the decision “absurd” and threw a copy of the resolution into a rubbish bin with the word “history” written on it.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat defended the Unesco vote, saying it aimed to reaffirm the importance of Jerusalem for Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

“It calls for respecting the status quo of its religious sites, including the al-Aqsa mosque compound that continues to be threatened by the systematic incitement and provocative actions of the Israeli government and extremist Jewish groups,” he said.

The Jerusalem Islamic trust, or wakf, is responsible for the day-to-day running of the flashpoint Temple Mount site, and although Jews are allowed to visit, they are prevented from praying. The Netanyahu government has banned visits to the site by both Jewish and Arab Knesset members, fearing that such visits could raise tensions and spark fresh confrontations.

Despite Israeli anger, Wednesday’s vote is unlikely to change anything on the ground.

Senior Unesco officials have already distanced themselves from the Jerusalem resolutions. Unesco director-general Irina Bokova reiterated her disavowal of the resolutions, stressing that she believes the Jewish people’s ties to the land of Israel go back 3,500 years.