The Islamic University of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
The Islamic University of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
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AP
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova Photo by AP

Relations between Israel and UNESCO have reached a new low following the organization's inauguration of a Chair in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza, which Israel identifies with Hamas.

The inauguration, by UNESCO's Secretary-General Irina Bokova, was made possible after the organization accepted Palestine as its 195th member, several months ago.

Palestine's acceptance caused the United States to cut off its funding to the agency.

After holding heated discussions with UNESCO officials on Wednesday, the Israeli ambassador to the agency, Nimrod Barkan, will submit a formal letter of protest on Thursday.

A senior Foreign Ministry source said the Israeli Embassy to UNESCO received a press release from the organization a few days ago saying UNESCO was sponsoring a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza. The chair is seen as a stamp of approval from the international body, implying recognition in the university's importance as an academic institution.

The move angered Jerusalem, especially because the university has served for years as a political hub for Hamas support. Israeli officials said numerous Hamas engineers have been trained at the university to manufacture explosive charges and rockets.

During Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2008-2009, the Israel Air Force bombed one of the university's wings, in which Israel said laboratories for rocket and bomb production were located.

Israel was especially furious that the first Palestinian university UNESCO chose to cooperate with was the IUG, rather than other universities in the Palestinian Authority, such as Al-Quds or Birzeit.

Foreign Ministry officials see UNESCO's Bokova as fully responsible for this development and said the cooperation with IUG is part of her campaign to be elected for a second term in 2013.

"Bokova wants to be elected at any price," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "Third world states have a majority in UNESCO so she's fawning on the Arabs to ensure her reelection. It's another sign of the growing politicization of a UN agency that is supposed to deal with culture, education and science," he said.

Barkan spoke to officials responsible for the Middle East in UNESCO's secretariat on Wednesday. "This is an institution that assists terror and has been involved in terror in the past," he said. "We don't think it was proper to give a chair with such lack of caution, without even checking the institution first."

On Thursday, Barkan is expected to submit an official letter of protest, together with information about IUG's reported ties with Hamas, with an emphasis on the organization's military faction.

"This decision is a combination of irresponsibility and lack of judgment," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "Before UNESCO gave a chair to the Technion and the Interdisciplinary Center [institutions in Haifa and Herzliya, respectively] they checked things with a magnifying glass. In Gaza no one checked."

A senior Foreign Ministry source said Bokova is now pushing for U.S. President Barack Obama to sign an order to resume UNESCO funding, bypassing Congress legislation.

The legislation was enacted after Palestine was accepted as a full UNESCO member. The United States, which had financed about a quarter of UNESCO's budget, immediately cut off funding to the agency.