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Israel suspends cooperation with UNESCO over Jerusalem draft

Posted October 14

— 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, titled "Occupied Palestine" and 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 to Judaism of two important holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City.

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 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."

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova expressed dismay with the draft resolution, which came from member states, saying that "different peoples worship the same places, sometimes under different names. The recognition, use of and respect for these names is paramount."

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed the resolution "absurd" after it was announced and on Friday tweeted: "What's next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?"

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 includes 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.

Bokova condemned the religious and cultural divisions being played out in the U.N. body that was created in part to further cross-cultural understanding.

"When these divisions carry over into UNESCO, an organization dedicated to dialogue and peace, they prevent us from carrying out our mission," she said.

Bokova has no official control over resolutions, which are sponsored and voted on by member states.

Bennet, the Israeli minister, said Bokova's comments were insufficient and urged the body to take action.

"The moral support provided by UNESCO to terror will end only when the organization cancels yesterday's outrageous decision, which denies history to please Israel haters. Words are important, but they are not a replacement to the actions of the organization she heads."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's 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."

Several countries hostile to Israel such as Iran and Lebanon voted in favor of the resolution — as did Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel. Qatar and Oman also voted in favor.

Amid stalled peace talks with the Palestinians and Iran's growing regional influence, Netanyahu has been touting what he calls strong behind-the-scenes contacts with moderate Sunni countries. He hasn't named them but they are presumed to be Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states.

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 Israeli 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.


Adamson reported from Paris.


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