UN Anti-racism Panel Questions Israel Over non-Jewish Holy Sites

UN to hold hearing later this week over Israel's alleged discrimination against its Arab population.

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A United Nations anti-racism panel is scheduled to hold a hearing later this week over Israel's attitude toward sites considered holy by its Arab population.

Israel's government has also been asked to explain if it discriminates between Jewish citizens and its Arab citizens in how it provides housing, education, public services, land rights and legal protection against acts of violence, according to a list of issues released by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The panel of 18 independent experts overseeing compliance with the United Nations' 38-year-old anti-racism treaty has submitted questions in writing on Israel's policy for preserving holy sites and asked the government to explain why it only grants special protection for places considered sacred by Jews.

The committee asked for a clarification over the fact that to date, 120 places have been declared holy sites, all of which are Jewish. The list of questions was formulated before the recent furor over a construction project in Jerusalem that some Muslims have charged could damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel - whose quadrennial review was postponed in August because of the Lebanon war - is to appear before the panel on Thursday and Friday to answer the questions, which include whether it has set forth regulations in relation to holy sites of both the Jewish and non-Jewish population.

Two weeks ago, Israeli archaeologists began a salvage dig ahead of the construction of a new pedestrian walkway up to Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

On Sunday, the dig sparked renewed Muslim condemnation after an Israeli archaeologist said the site might contain a Muslim prayer room.

Most holy places are also considered antiquities sites, Israel said in 2005 submission to the panel, arguing that Muslim sites are still protected under its law.

The Jewish state referred in the 124-page report to a pending High Court decision over whether the government was required to offer Muslim holy places the same status as Jewish religious sites. Nevertheless, it said several existing statutes protect holy places by requiring excavation, drainage, sewage and demolition projects near holy sites, Jewish or non-Jewish, to first gain special government permission.

The archaeological dig is taking place about 60 meters away from the Al Aqsa mosque ? a site considered the third-holiest in Islam.

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