Abe Hayeem: Israel’s UNESCO fiasco

By Abe Hayeem, Israeli Occupation Archive – 4 Nov 2011

Despite the machinations by Israel and the US, there was great joy expressed at the UNESCO Assembly when Palestine was voted in as a member state (www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=B-B61_g8QkQ).

Like thwarted spoiled bullies, both Israel and the US reacted with theatrical pique and fury. The US, never applying sanctions against Israel’s decades- long war crimes in Gaza and the OPT’s by suspending its steadfast cornucopia of billions in aid and arms, immediately withdrew its $80 million contribution to UNESCO as a collective punishment.  In addition Haaretz reported that it will “consider new legislation to impose additional restrictions on American funding of the UN, threaten cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority, and slash military assistance to key foreign countries in retaliation to their support for the Palestinian bid for full UN membership.” The US is bound by law to cut the funding to any UN body involved with recognition of a Palestinian state, even at the risk of harming its own and international interests (www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/201111175413649373.html).

Israel went even further, using the settler-type “price tag”. Haaretz reported the possibility of Israel “imposing sanctions on the Palestinian Authority… increasing settlement construction, and halting the transfer of tax money which Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority.” Israel announced the go-ahead for yet another 2000 homes in East Jerusalem, using illegality and theft of land to punish a democratic vote in favour of the Palestinians, as it did with the democratic election of Hamas in 2006 (www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/netanyahu-it-is-israel-s-right-and-obligation-to-build-in-jerusalem-1.393341).

Israel’s warning that it “will now reconsider its cooperation with UNESCO” is the biggest irony. Like its relentless impunity to international and humanitarian law and UN resolutions, Israel had disregarded all the warnings by UNESCO ever since its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem not to change the status of the historic Old City and its environs (http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/307).

Israel continues to clash with UNESCO and UN over the designation of the holy sites: (www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israel-clashes-with-unesco-in-row-over-holy-sites-1.322758). Israel’s planned “Historical Trail” includes many sites in the occupied territories on a map showing the whole area as in “Israel” which appears in all its tourist advertisements (www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/images/iht_daily/D150210/shvil-israelupdate.jpg).

It has no hesitation in the wanton destruction of  historic areas of cities like the Casbah in Nablus, or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as it did during ‘Defensive Shield’”operations in 2002. Immune to Muslim sensitivities and world protests, it continued  with the destruction of graves in the ancient Muslim cemetery in Mamilla, Jerusalem, to build the “Museum of Tolerance” (sic) (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/26/israelandthepalestinians-humanrights.

Israel has carried on with questionable archaeological practices since the 1967 war. The entire Old City was declared a site of Antiquity, and all the archives and collections of the Rockefeller Museum (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), and other institutions were declared to be the state’s ‘national and cultural’ property, contravening the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) ratified by UNESCO (www.archaeological.org/news/hca/3137).

This ‘ownership’ is still emphasised today by PM Netanyahu who has declared: “United Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours”.

Jerusalem’s Old City reconstruction was “fashioned over ruins incorporated into the new structures, so as to appropriate previous historical narratives into the expansion of the Jewish nation State, to establish a ‘priority of right’” (http://apjp.org/book-reviews/facts-on-the-ground-nadia-abu-el-haj.html).

Most controversially, excavations have been allowed to be taken under control by the ultra-religious authorities and organisations like Ateret Hacohanim in the Western Heritage Tunnel, and the radical settler movements like Elad in Silwan. This is now being questioned by Israeli archaeologists themselves, worried at the dangerous concoction of its use as part of the colonial expansion in the Old City and the ‘Holy Basin.

Now Israel has given over the administration of the City of David National Park to complete control of Elad, which is being questioned by NGOs in the courts (www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/israeli-ngo-elad-group-has-veto-power-over-jerusalem-s-city-of-david-1.391619).

The controversial demolition of the Mughrabi Bridge onto the Haram-ash-Sharif and the building of a new bridge to access the area is now being raised again, which will give Israeli settlers their own access to the Al Aqsa mosque area which fundamentalist groups wish to replace with a rebuilt Temple (www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/news/middle-east/3013-demolition-of-historic-bridge-to-al-aqsa-qwill-have-serious-consequencesq).

Israel’s fear is that UNESCO membership for the Palestine will threaten its hegemony over the historic sites and its claim to all of the ‘Holy Land’. The Palestinians have said they will be able to seek World Heritage status for the Church of Nativity as the birthplace of Jesus, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.  Hamdan Taha , the PA’s antiquities and culture minister, said “UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?” (www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/palestinians-compile-list-of-heritage-sites-as-part-of-unesco-campaign-1.389136).

This is exactly what Israel wishes to do in its opposition to the UN granting Palestinian statehood. It insists on endless fruitless negotiations on a useless ‘peace process’ and pushing recognition of a Palestinian state to ‘final status’, to prevent this from ever happening. As Moshe Dayan, the famous IDF general said, “The establishment of … a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else… Either the state of Israel – or a Palestinian state” (Moshé Machover: Zionist ‘negotiating strategy’ sham).

Now that the Palestinians have full UNESCO membership status, it will apply for membership of the WHO and 15 smaller UN agencies which will add even further to Israel’s and the US’ chagrin and spiteful retaliation (www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/with-unesco-membership-granted-palestinians-seek-to-join-16-more-un-agencies-1.393134).

As a response to the unhinged and irrational behaviour of Israel and the US over the UNESCO membership, which raises questions as to their ever being reliable interlocutors, the responsible members of the UN Security Council and General Assembly should now ensure that Palestine achieves full member status of the UN as the only way, apart from boycotts, divestment and sanctions, to break the logjam against peace and justice in the Middle East.

The Palestinians can then assert their rights to freedom and international law, and make Israel liable for its crimes of occupation, and its continual crimes of ethnic cleansing of its citizens in Israel, and its Judaisation policies against the Bedouin in the Negev and in the ‘mixed cities’ of Jaffa, Acre, Ramle, Lydda and Haifa.

Abe Hayeem is an architect, peace activist and founder member of Architects & Planners for Justice in Palestine. He has written for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free,’ Architecture Week, Building Design, Palestine News, Red Pepper, and the IOA.

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