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Israel Suspends UNESCO Cooperation Over Jerusalem Draft

  • Associated Press

FILE - A Jewish man prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Israel objects to a UNESCO draft resolution it says ignores the religion's historic ties to such sites.

FILE - A Jewish man prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Israel objects to a UNESCO draft resolution it says ignores the religion's historic ties to such sites.

Israel suspended cooperation with UNESCO on Friday, a day after the U.N. cultural agency adopted a draft resolution that Israel says denies the deep, historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.

UNESCO's draft resolution, sponsored by several Arab countries, uses only the Islamic name for a hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims, which includes the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical temple and the holiest site where Jews can pray. The validated resolution is expected early next week, but the wording is unlikely to change.

Israelis and many Jews around the world viewed it as the latest example of an ingrained anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.

The draft resolution, seen by The Associated Press, diminished the links of two important holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City to Judaism. The text refers to the site known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name. The draft resolution refers to the Muslim holy site of Al-Buraq Plaza without quotations, but puts the site's Jewish name, the Western Wall Plaza, in inverted commas.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett informed UNESCO of Israel's decision on Friday.

“Following the shameful decision by UNESCO members to deny history and ignore thousands of years of Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, I have notified the Israel National Commission for UNESCO to suspend all professional activities with the international organization,'' Bennett said.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he was ``outraged'' by the resolution.

“Would UNESCO vote to deny the Christian connection to the Vatican? Or the Muslim connection to Mecca? The UNESCO vote claims that there is no connection between the Jewish people and the Western Wall. In fact, it is the UNESCO vote that has no connection to reality.''

Strained relations

The spat is the latest in Israel's rocky relations with UNESCO, which it accuses of making decisions out of political considerations.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, with sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians claim the territory as part of their future state, and its fate is one of the most contentious issues in the decades-old conflict.

Jews refer to the hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples. Muslims refer to it as al-Haram al-Sharif, Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary, and it is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, expressed dismay with the wording of the draft resolution, stating that "different peoples worship the same places, sometimes under different names. The recognition, use of and respect for these names is paramount.''

"The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible, and each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city,'' Bokova said.

"To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list."

Palestinians approve of draft

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' government in the West Bank welcomed the resolution, as did Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. A spokesman for Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction, called the resolution a “step in the right direction.''

The dispute over Jerusalem's holiest site ignited a wave of violence this time last year. Since then Palestinian attackers have killed 36 Israelis and two visiting Americans, mainly in stabbings. About 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, most of them identified as attackers by Israel. The Palestinians, as well as Israeli and international rights groups, say forces have in some cases used excessive force to subdue attackers.

Israel has blamed the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders, compounded on social media sites that glorify violence. The Palestinians say it is rooted in some 50 years of military rule and fading hopes for independence.