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UNESCO denies our history, say Israelis

21 October 2016


Golden dome: the holy site of the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharifa, in Jerusalem

Golden dome: the holy site of the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharifa, in Jerusalem

ISRAELI politicians have attacked a resolution from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, which criticises Israel’s administration of a holy site in Jerusalem, and refers to it using solely the Islamic name.

The site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, is both the location of the ancient Hebrew Temple, and the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But a resolution passed by UNESCO on Tuesday used only the Islamic term to refer to the site. Israeli politicians and others said that this showed that the organisation was trying to erase the area’s significance to Jews.

Israel’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, said that the agency was ignoring thousands of years of history that linked Jews to Jerusalem.

The opposition Labour Party leader, Isaac Herzog, said: “UNESCO betray their mission, and give a bad name to diplomacy and the international institutions. Whoever wants to rewrite history, to distort fact, and to completely invent the fantasy that the Western Wall and Temple Mount have no connection to the Jewish people is telling a terrible lie that only serves to increase hatred.”

The resolution, which was sponsored by Arab nations, emphasised the importance of safeguarding the cultural heritage of Palestine, and criticised the Israeli authorities for allegedly restricting Muslims’ worship at the site, and for contentious archaeological excavations.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has expressed concerns over the language used in the resolution. “Different peoples worship the same places, sometimes under different names. The recognition, use of, and respect for these names is paramount. To deny, conceal, or erase any of the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site.”

The resolution was none the less passed by the UNESCO executive board by 24 votes to six. The UK and the United States were among the countries to vote against it.

The complicated site in the Old City of Jerusalem contains both the Western Wall, which was once the outer wall of King Herod’s Temple, and above it, on a raised plaza, both the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, another holy Islamic shrine.

Since the occupation of eastern Jerusalem by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the whole site has been under the control of Israel, but the plaza is managed by a Jordanian-funded Islamic trust. Jews are allowed to worship at the Western Wall below the plaza, but can visit the mosques above it only as tourists.

In a statement, the President of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that denying Israel’s connection to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site was equivalent to stating that China had no links with its Great Wall, or Egypt with its pyramids.

The resolution passed by UNESCO is unlikely to affect the day-to-day running of the site in Jerusalem, but Israel has suspended its co-operation with the international body until further notice, in protest.

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