JERUSALEM — Israel announced Friday that it would suspend cooperation with the top U.N. cultural agency, charging that the international body ignored Jewish ties to its holiest site.
Israeli officials had reacted angrily to a UNESCO draft resolution approved Thursday that criticizes Israel’s actions in and around Jerusalem’s holiest site and fails to explicitly refer to the Jewish connection to the place.
Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the UNESCO decision “denies history and encourages terror.”
The resolution, which was submitted by seven Arab countries at a meeting in Paris, highlights a long list of what it called Israeli violations of the Haram al-Sharif and al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, and other Muslim holy sites in the West Bank.
The document outlines Israeli refusal to implement previous decisions by UNESCO concerning Jerusalem and to appoint a permanent representative of the organization to be stationed there. It also criticizes Israel’s “persistent excavations” in East Jerusalem particularly in the Old City and its failure to allow free access to the mosque.
While acknowledging that the “Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls” are important for “the three monotheistic religions” — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — the resolution stops short of mentioning the significance of the site, where two Jewish temples are believed to have once stood, as holy to Jews.
Israeli politicians and U.S. Jewish leaders lashed out at the resolution for its failure to mention the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall, Jewish terms for the same site, which is considered the holiest in Judaism.
The resolution requires final approval from UNESCO’s executive board during its official plenary next week.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Facebook that the UNESCO decision was “absurd.”
“Today UNESCO adopted its second decision this year denying the Jewish people’s connection to the Temple Mount, our holiest site for over three thousand years. What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?” he said.
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen, said, “Israel and the Jewish people do not need UNESCO or any other country to approve the unique connection between the Jewish people and the State of Israel and Jerusalem in general and its holy places like the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in particular.”
The resolution was backed by 24 countries. Six opposed it, 26 abstained and two were not present. The United States voted against the resolution.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was created to protect world heritage sites of “outstanding universal value,” among other things.
The resolution focuses on alleged Israeli shortcomings in allowing access for Muslims to the mosque, excavations around the specific site and in Jerusalem in general and changes to its facade. It calls on Israel, which the United Nations sees as an occupying power in the part of Jerusalem where the Old City sits, to restore the historic status quo at the site and condemned Israeli “aggressions and illegal measures against the Awqaf Department,” the Muslim body charged with caring for the holy site.
Palestinian leaders welcomed the resolution.
“Israel always claims we focus on the religious arguments, but we are not denying any religious connection. The third paragraph of the resolution recognizes the historic importance for the three monotheistic religions,” said Mounir Anastas, the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO.
“UNESCO has been asking Israel since 1968, one year after the occupation started, to stop its excavations and archaeological work in all areas of Jerusalem,” he said. “UNESCO has asked repeatedly for Israel to allow a technical mission to Jerusalem, not a political mission, to report on the state of conservation in the city but it is always denied.”
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement Friday that UNESCO is dedicated to dialogue and peace and such divisions “prevent us from carrying out our mission.”
Recognition, use of and respect for the various names used by different religious groups was paramount, Bokova said.
“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 few steps away from the Saint Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives revered by Christians,” she said.