Israel clashes with UNESCO in row over holy sites
Government furious over UN decision to classify West Bank biblical tomb as a mosque.
Israel on Wednesday said it would reduce cooperation with the United Nations' cultural watchdog after the body classified Rachel's Tomb in the West Bank as a mosque.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Israel would not cooperate with UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - in administering five protected sites in Palestinian territory as a dispute that has escalated in recent weeks came to a head.
The ancient tomb, which lies between Jerusalem and the nearby Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem, is traditionally regarded as the burial place of a biblical matriarch and is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Speaking with journalists in Jerusalem, Ayalon blamed the Palestinians for influencing the UN to side against Israel.
"This is another attempt at de-legitimization by the Palestinian Authority," he said.
However, Israel's reaction was not quite as serious as it first appeared. Ayalon's spokeswoman said that Israel would cut off relations with UNESCO altogether - but shortly after said that the announcement had been made in error and retracted the statement.
UNESCO had become a "rubber stamp" for the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, Ayalon added:
"Decisions like this take us farther away from peace and understanding between our two nations."
Israel's boycott follows an angry statement last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemning UNESCO's ruling on the tomb, which Muslims call the al-Ibrahimi Mosque.
"The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd," the statement said. "If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?"
In its biannual session which ended last week, UNESCO adopted five proposals initiated by Arab member states regarding Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
One of them, in what Israelis charged was a first, used an allegedly politically motivated title to describe Rachel's tomb, rebuffing a recent Israeli move to classify the burial place, and another in Hebron, as "national heritage sites".
Referring to the structure as the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb", UNESCO's board voted 44 to one, with 12 abstentions, to reaffirm that the site was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law".