UNESCO Resolution on Jerusalem: What’s been Lost in the PR Frenzy

In the days leading up to the adoption of a UNESCO resolution on Occupied unescoPalestine, the media has focused almost exclusively on Israel’s allegation that the resolution denies Jewish heritage in the Old City of Jerusalem. A deeper look at the text of the resolution, as well as a review of developments in the Old City over the past decade, offer insight into the possible reasons for the creation of this media narrative. Simply put, it is part of a long series of repeated Israeli attempts to deflect attention from the ways in which Tel Aviv has refused to comply with previous UNESCO decisions on Jerusalem.

The flurry of news articles following the acceptance of the resolution on October 18th have continuously recycled Israeli claims that it is “contentious” and “anti-Israel” because it “ignores” and “denies” Jewish connection to Jerusalem’s holy sites. The text, however, specifically “[affirms] the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” and references other UNESCO documents that do the same. (For instance document 200 EX/25, which states “the Old City of Jerusalem is the sacred city of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and…each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city.”)

The Mughrabi Ascent – a tale of Israeli non-cooperation and unilateral action

The resolution prompted Israel to suspend cooperation with UNESCO, however an analysis of its actions reveals that Israel has not been keen on cooperating with the world cultural organization for almost ten years. In fact, the drama Israel has caused around this resolution may be a way to entrench its continued non-compliance with UNESCO decisions.

Since 2007, Israeli authorities have unilaterally carried out both the construction of temporary ramps leading into the Haram al-Sharif through the Mughrabi Gate (the historic ramp began collapsing in 2004) and archaeological excavations around the site. At the time, UNESCO’s executive board and the World Heritage Committee requested a dialogue between Israeli, Jordanian, and Waqf* experts—with no mention of Palestinian expertise —in order to discuss a design and plan for a permanent new entrance, called the Mughrabi Ascent. It emphasized that “no measures, unilateral or otherwise, should be taken that would affect the authenticity or integrity of the site.”

Temporary ramp at Mughrabi Gate site

The World Heritage Committee was able to facilitate two such dialogues in early 2008. Since then, however, follow-up meetings have been unsuccessful, notwithstanding attempts by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to convey Israeli-Jordanian cooperation. By 2011, there were distinct Israeli and Jordanian plans for the Mughrabi Ascent and a meeting was set for April 2012 at which both parties could present their respective ideas—again, without including Palestine. But “Israel,” without explanation, “informed the World Heritage Center that it would not participate in the meeting.” And although the Jordanian plan was discussed, nothing concrete came of the meeting until two months later, when the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations to UNESCO reported that Israeli authorities were, once again, engaging in unilateral work at the Ascent.

Since then, not much has happened on the issue other than calls for meetings, none of which have come to pass. Eventually, in 2015, both the UNESCO executive board and the World Heritage Committee voted to enable Jordanian Waqf experts to “maintain and safeguard the site and to facilitate…the execution of the Jordanian design of the Ascent.” Those words have remained a dead letter. The recently passed resolution condemns “the continuing Israeli unilateral measures and decisions regarding the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate,” and “the continued Israeli refusal to act in accordance with UNESCO and World Heritage Committee decisions that request a UNESCO experts meeting” on the site. For a brief history of the Haram al-Sharif since 1967, including specific details about the politics of the Mughrabi Gate, Nazmi Jubeh’s work, Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif: Crucible of Conflict and Control, is instrumental.

The reactive monitoring mission fail

The resolution also called for the implementation of a reactive monitoring mission, a process whereby the World Heritage Center visits and reports on the “state of conservation of specific World Heritage properties that are under threat.” The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls have been on the World Heritage List since 1981, and categorized as endangered since 1982. Plans for such a mission have been at a standstill for nearly seven years due to Israeli non-compliance. The resolution noted that, “Israel, the occupying Power, had not complied with any of the 12 decisions of the Executive Board as well as six decisions of the World Heritage Committee that request the implementation of the reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls.”

Beginning in 2010, the World Heritage Committee has three times requested that a reactive monitoring mission assess and advise on an action plan for the “safeguarding of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem.” On each occasion, “no response was received” from Israeli authorities.

The irony of it all

Palestinian worshipers take part in prayer in Jerusalem

Israeli claims that Jewish history is being “denied” or “ignored” because the UNESCO resolution refers to the holy site only by its Arabic name are ironic, given Israel’s long-standing and systematic erasure of Palestinian history and culture. Examples include the false Zionist trope of “a land without a people;” the implementation of new road signs that no longer include the Arabic name for Jerusalem, al-Quds; and a recently released propaganda video from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the “land of Israel” that not only dispenses with Palestinian history, but also depicts Palestinians as foreign invaders.

This is hardly the first time a UN agency has been painted as “anti-Semitic” or as having an “anti-Israel bias.” Indeed, the media thrive on such allegations because they make catchy headlines. Unfortunately, while these instances offer Israeli claims a reverberating platform, the substance and context of the actual issues may be entirely lost.

*The Waqf is the religious trust that has had historical jurisdiction over the Haram al-Sharif compound (including Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and other structures).

Justine is an Editorial Intern with IPS. She received her BA from Hampshire College.