Last month, the Palestinian Authority asked the UN Security Council for recognition as an independent state. With no decision yet made, President Mahmoud Abbas is now applying to more world bodies for full membership, as he sidesteps peace negotiations with Israel.
The latest move: an application for membership to UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Last Wednesday, the Palestinians cleared their first hurdle as UNESCO’s executive board agreed to allow a vote on their request.
The Palestinians are also trying to enter the World Trade Organization and last week succeeded in obtaining partnership status in the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body.
The Palestinians presently hold observer status at UNESCO. Full membership could have wider implications and serve ongoing Arab efforts to delegitimize Jewish claims to ancestral and biblical holy sites in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and East Jerusalem.
Monday, Reuters quoted the Palestinian minister in charge of antiquities and culture, Hamdan Taha, saying if accepted, the Palestinian Authority will seek UNESCO World Heritage recognition for Bethlehem where the Church of the Nativity sits, Hebron, Nablus and other West Bank sites.
Opposing the move are Israel and the U.S. which is threatening to cut off funds to the UN agency. By law, the U.S. cannot fund a UN organization that grants full membership to a group "that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood." The U.S. contributes 22% of the agency’s budget – more than $80 million per year.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is determined to cut funding if UNESCO grants full Palestinian membership:
“Feeling that their efforts at the UN Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the UN system for recognition. This attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the UN, and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it’s "inexplicable" that UNESCO would consider moving ahead on Palestinian membership while the statehood bid is still before the UN Security Council (which the U.S. also opposes), adding she:
“would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United Nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations.”
Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told the New York Times, “We need the issue of the state of Palestine to be resolved in the U.N. system,” adding UNESCO “is one place where we can acquire our rightful place among the community of nations as a full member.”
Even without full Palestinian membership, UNESCO has demonstrated a repeated willingness to rubber-stamp questionable Palestinian ownership claims over key historical and religious sites.
The Israeli website Ynet published a special report in July titled “UNESCO Against the Jews,” stating the “UN’s cultural body seems to be engaged in inquisition-like campaign against Israel.” It detailed multiple anti-Israel and anti-Jewish UNESCO rulings including:
*calling on Israel to cease all archaeological work in the Old City of Jerusalem.
*designating Jerusalem in 2009 as “capital of Arab culture,” protesting what they described as “the Israeli occupation of Holy Jerusalem.”
*last year labeling Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as “Muslim mosques,” with no explanation that Rachel’s Tomb is the burial site of the wife of Jacob, biblical patriarch of the Jewish people.
*organizing a symposium on Jerusalem in 1996 at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters with no Jewish or Israeli groups invited.
*It also found a UNESCO document that bizarrely referred to the Middle Ages rabbi revered as one of the greatest Jewish philosophers as Muslim:
“…[in] a recent UNESCO report on science Jewish physician and theologian Maimonides is classified as a Muslim named “Moussa ben Maimoun.” So the Rambam - for Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon – has been forced to “convert” to Islam by the UN’s revisionist historians.”
Jonathan Tobin detailed the wider implications in Commentary Magazine:
...If the Palestinians are given full membership in UNESCO, we can expect them to use it to advance their historical revisionist campaign in which Arab vandalism on the Temple Mount is ignored while efforts to uncover Jewish artifacts are branded illegal. As is the case with their entire UN gambit, this effort will be portrayed as an attempt to defend the Palestinians, but its true purpose will be the denial of Jewish rights.
Earlier this year, more than 120,000 signed an on-line petition protesting UNESCO’s ruling that Israel has no right to add the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb to its National Heritage list. The Patriarch’s Tomb is the oldest Jewish shrine and the second holiest site in Judaism where the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob -- and their wives are buried.
The petition, sponsored by the pro-Israel group “To Protect Our Heritage PAC” explains:
In an effort to erase Jewish history and supersede Jewish religious sites with Islamic institutions, Muslims have intentionally built mosques upon numerous synagogues and Jewish holy sites. The clearest examples are the Al-Aqsa mosque which sits on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and the Dome of the Rock, which was built on Judaism’s holiest site of the two biblical Jewish Temples.
…In cooperating with efforts to erase Jewish historical ties to Israel, UNESCO is aiding and abetting those who hope to and obfuscate Israel’s Jewish past and undermine Israel’s Jewish future.
As a member of UNESCO – the agency overseeing education, science and culture - the Palestinian Authority might presumably feel an increased responsibility to protect cultural sites in territories in controls. But on precisely the day the UN agency took up the membership bid, back home, vandals desecrated a key Jewish holy site. Jewish worshippers arriving for pre-Yom Kippur prayer services were stunned to find swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti spray-painted on the walls of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, the biblical city Shechem.
It’s not the first time the site has been subject to vandalism. In 2000, Palestinians stormed the compound and devastated the site, using pickaxes and setting it on fire.
Forty members of UNESCO’s board voted in favor of moving the Palestinian membership bid to a full vote, 14 abstained and only four countries opposed: the U.S., Germany, Latvia and Romania.
The full vote later this month is open to all 193 UN member states, including countries not usually associated with promoting democratic education and culture such as Iran, Libya, and Sudan. One example of the disconnect between the agency’s mission and its members: Afghanistan under the Taliban dynamited one of the region’s most precious cultural sites, the 6th century monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Taking into account the large Muslim state voting bloc, the Palestinian bid is almost certain to pass. Like in so many other instances at the UN, again the U.S. and Israel will find themselves staking out the minority position in an organization for which the U.S. is the largest funder.