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UNESCO adopts controversial Jerusalem resolution

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem is Islam's third holiest site but the area is also venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, the most sacred place in Judaism ©Ahmad Gharabli/AFP-File

Al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site but the area is also venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, the most sacred place in Judaism/AFP-File

PARIS, France. Oct 18 – The UN cultural agency on Tuesday adopted a controversial Arab-sponsored resolution condemning Israel’s actions at a flashpoint holy site in east Jerusalem that has sparked fury in the Jewish state.

The UNESCO resolution on “occupied Palestine” was drafted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. It was endorsed Tuesday by the executive board after being approved at the committee stage last week.

Referring throughout to Israel as “the occupying power,” it condemns Israel for restricting Muslims’ access to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound Islam’s third holiest site.

But it is the language used to describe the Old City site, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, that has infuriated Israel, which suspended its cooperation with the Paris-based UN body last week.

While acknowledging the importance of the Old City to “the three monotheistic religions” (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) the resolution refers throughout to the site by its Muslim names, Al-Aqsa or Al-Haram al-Sharif.

Jews however revere it as the Temple Mount where the First and Second Temples once stood and the holiest site in Judaism.

Palestine’s deputy ambassador to UNESCO, Mounir Anastas, welcomed the adoption of the resolution, saying he hoped it would pressure Israeli authorities to “stop all their violations”, particularly the excavation of sites in and around the Old City.

But Israel’s UNESCO ambassador, Carmel Shama Hacohen, accused the Palestinians of playing “games”.

“This is the wrong place to solve problems between countries or people,” he told AFP.

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Unease in UNESCO

This is the second time this year that the UN agency, which accepted Palestine as a full member state in 2011, has been the focal point of tensions between Israel and Arab countries.

In April, it passed a resolution condemning “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque”.

That led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to propose a “seminar on Jewish history” for UN staff in Israel.

The atmosphere before the vote on Tuesday was soured further by threats received by telephone and on social media last week, a UNESCO official said.

The text had created unease at the top of the organisation, with Michael Worbs, who chairs UNESCO’s executive board, saying he would have liked more time to work out a compromise.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova distanced herself from the resolutions, saying in a statement that “nowhere more than in Jerusalem do Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage and traditions share space.”

The compound is a 14-hectare (35-acre) rectangular esplanade at the southeast corner of the Old City which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never internationally recognised.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, but the Palestinians want the eastern sector as capital of their future state.

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‘Proportional reaction’

Israel’s envoy to UNESCO defended the Jewish state’s suspension of its cooperation with the organisation as a “proportional reaction” to the resolution passed on Tuesday.

“I hope it will not last long,” he told AFP.

The UN body also on Tuesday adopted a separate, less controversial resolution on schools in Palestinian territories.

Participants said the two resolutions were adopted by 24 votes to six with 26 abstentions and two absentees at the committee stage last week.

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