Israel's prime minister on Tuesday accused UNESCO of diminishing Jewish ties to Jerusalem after the U.N. cultural agency passed a resolution criticizing Israeli excavations in the city's Israeli-annexed eastern sector as a violation of international law.
Israel considers the entire city to be its capital, including East Jerusalem, which it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Most of the international community considers East Jerusalem to be occupied territory, a view the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed in December.
In Tuesday's resolution, the U.N. agency calls on Israel to cease "persistent excavations, tunneling, works and projects" in East Jerusalem, particularly the walled Old City, which is home to sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Such activities by an occupying power are illegal under international law, said the resolution, which several Arab countries had tabled.
The resolution affirmed the importance of the Old City and its walls to the three monotheistic religions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Jews have a special bond to the city.
"There is no other people in the world for whom Jerusalem is as holy and important as for the Jewish people," Netanyahu said in a speech at the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Israel's Independence Day. He said UNESCO was "trying to deny this simple truth."
The Old City is home to the Temple Mount — the location of the biblical Jewish temples and Judaism's holiest site. Muslims refer to the area, which now hosts two mosques, as the Noble Sanctuary, their third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The Old City also houses major Christian shrines.
Israeli archaeological excavations and other infrastructure projects in the Old City have long stoked tensions.
The UNESCO resolution said Israel had taken actions that have "altered, or purport to alter, the character and status of the Holy City."
The resolution, submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, was approved by 22 member states, with 10 voting against and 23 abstaining.
The agency has frequently been used as a theater for political disputes between Israel and Arab nations. Israel has long complained of bias at U.N. forums, feeling outnumbered by Arab nations and their supporters.
Last year, UNESCO's executive board approved a resolution that Israel said denies the deep historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu said Tuesday's resolution marked an "improvement in the march of absurdity" as it mentions the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. "Well, we're making progress, but there is still a way to go," he added.
Elias Wadih Sanbar, the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, said Tuesday's resolution was part of efforts to "stop giving a kind of blank check to an occupier that is acting with total illegality and impunity."
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said he had instructed the country's representative at UNESCO to vote against what he called "the latest politicized resolution on Jerusalem."
"Our opinion is very clear: UNESCO can't become the headquarters of a permanent ideological clash in which questions are faced for which the solutions are supposed to be handled in other headquarters," Alfano was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA.
The fate of Jerusalem has been one of the thorniest issues in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which last broke down in 2014. The Palestinians hope to establish a future capital in East Jerusalem.