A statement issued by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has angered Palestinian officials and activists.
Bokova made the statement Oct. 14, the same day Israel decided to suspend its relations with UNESCO due to the organization’s resolution on Israeli violations in Jerusalem that Israel feels ignored Jewish connections to Al-Haram al-Sharif compound. Bokova tried to re-emphasize the importance of the three main Abrahamic religions and called for tolerance and for dialogue. After explaining that UNESCO declared Jerusalem a World Heritage Site because of its universality and its importance to the three religions, she concluded by appealing for “dialogue, not confrontation.”
But what angered Palestinians was the feeling that the UNESCO director-general tried to oppose the will of the majority of the member states. Of special concern was Bokova saying, “The Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram al-Sharif, the sacred shrine of Muslims, is also the Har HaBayit — or Temple Mount — whose Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism.”
A Haaretz article from May 2015 stated there was no connection between Al-Haram al-Sharif and the Jewish temples. While they did not question the existence of the First Temple, Israeli journalists Ruth Schuster and Ran Shapira wrote in the same Israeli daily in October that year, “Archaeologists cannot conclusively point to stones they know comprised the Second Temple, let alone the first one.”
However, Elias Sanbar, the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, said Oct. 17 that the Oct. 13 UNESCO vote was about “occupation,” not the Temple Mount. Sanbar explained that since the Old City of Jerusalem is part of the occupied territories, the Geneva conventions make it illegal for Israel as an occupying power to change the names or references of locations.
In an Oct. 15 press release, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki said that what Bokova did was “unprecedented,” adding, “She insulted every member state with sovereignty that voted on the resolution, which successfully passed.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee in charge of the department of culture and communications, said in an Oct. 17 statement that the UNESCO resolution will help protect Palestinian cultural heritage sites. “We are advancing towards freedom and independence using all the tools available to us within the framework of international law, including our admission as a state to the United Nations and all of its specialized agencies.”
On Oct. 18, the Palestinian Cabinet added its praise for the UNESCO resolution but rejected “the statements of the director-general, which run contrary to the resolution.”
An official in the Paris-based UNESCO headquarters told Al-Monitor that the issue of Jerusalem has come up regularly since 1968. The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Bokova was trying to reaffirm the fact that Jerusalem is important to all three religions. The official rejected the idea that the statement was unprecedented, saying that the director-general has made three statements before her latest one on Jerusalem and they are all available on the UNESCO website. Back in April, she made a similar statement distancing herself from the resolution of member states disregarding the Temple Mount’s religious and historic significance for Jews.
While Israelis were generally upset with the UNESCO resolution, some blamed the current Israeli government for it. An editorial in the independent daily Haaretz called the Oct. 16 UNESCO decision a “diplomatic defeat” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Israel may be accepted behind the scenes, in back-channel dealings, but when the lights go on, legitimacy belongs to the Palestinians,” it argued.
The controversy over Bokova’s statement has also brought back discussions about the decline of US influence in the cultural body. The United States was forced to suspend its financial support of $60 million a year to UNESCO once the UN body recognized the state of Palestine in 2011, and lost its voting rights when it failed to pay its debts to the Paris-based organization in 2013.
A US State Department official rejected the idea that Washington has lost its influence in the international body. The official, who asked not to be identified, told Al-Monitor that the United States remains “an active member” of UNESCO and works to advance US interests relative to UNESCO’s mandate.
He said that the United States “will continue to explore with Congress options for resuming payment of our dues, which will allow the US to play a stronger role in this organization as a whole going forward and strengthening our ability to push back on anti-Israel resolutions.”
UNESCO is a UN cultural organization that is mandated to carry out the will of its members. As a full-fledged member, Palestine, as well as the majority of states that voted for the latest resolution, have a right to have their votes and decisions respected by the director-general appointed by the member states. Naturally, UN staff, including the director-general, have the right and responsibility to speak out on issues that represent the core of the mission of the organization. The UNESCO resolution in question focused on the violations of the Israeli occupation forces that refused to meet with the UNESCO delegation visiting Jerusalem. While Israelis have a right to call the area in question any name they want, they can’t force it on the world community, which has an obligation to treat the area in accordance with international law as an occupied area.