Israeli politicians rushed to condemn the resolution adopted by the UN's education, science and culture agency on Thursday with regard to the Temple Mount. The bulk of the criticism touched on the motion's terminology and was largely justified. But a close reading of the resolution shows that in fact, it includes a few positive revisions from the last such resolution passed by UNESCO. More importantly, it calls on Israel to enter negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians to improve the situation on Temple Mount for everyone involved.
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Contrary to Israeli claims, the document isn't a declaration as to the rightful owner of Temple Mount and its surroundings, or as to which religion has sacred claim to the site and its wall. The resolution is about determining how to maintain and nurture a world heritage site recognized by UNESCO. The agency has set rules for the preservation of Jerusalem's Old City, and these rules are being violated, according to the writers of the document.
Israel is recognized by international law as an occupier, so the document's repeated reference to Israel as such shouldn't raise eyebrows. However, the terminology does have a clear slant toward the Islamic narrative. For example, the term Western Wall appears in quotes throughout the document, while the Arabic term for the site, Al-Burak, does not. The document refers to the Temple Mount by its Arabic names, Haram Al-Sharif and Al-Aqsa, while making no mention of its Jewish names.
But the first achievement for Israel comes early in the document. In section 3, UNESCO's executive board affirms "the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions." The implication is that Judaism is one of the three religions that consider Jerusalem's Old City holy. This assertion does not exist in the previous version of the resolution that UNESCO approved in April.
A comparison of the two versions shows that one section is missing from the new text – section 14, which accuses Israel of damaging the assets of the Muslim religious trust, the Waqf, outside Temple Mount. The section that was eliminated alleged that Israel has planted fake Jewish graves inside a Muslim cemetery and harmed remains from the Umayyad and Byzantine periods in favor of Jewish prayer sites and ritual baths.
Two additional sections have undergone changes. A condemnation of attacks on members of the Waqf was added to section 8, in light of recent clashes between police and the organization on Temple Mount and around it. And section 10 now condemns the entrance of Israel Antiques Authority officials to structures on the mount.
Section 16 condemns Israeli projects that alter the mount's surroundings, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's plan to build a cable car system in the East Jerusalem area of Silwan and the Mount of the Olives, a plan to build a large visitor center in Silwan, the construction of a major office building in the Western Wall plaza and the installation of an elevator between the wall and the Jewish quarter.
But the most important part is section 7, which appeared in the previous version and calls on Israel to restore the "historic Status Quo" that existed on the Temple Mount until September 2000. That month, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon ascended to Temple Mount and the second intifada broke out, prompting Israel to halt non-Muslim visits to the site for three years. The visits were renewed in 2003 unilaterally, without the Waqf's consent and without allowing visitors to enter mosques. Jordan has been pressing Israel for some time now to restore the status quo, under which non-Muslims would be allowed to enter the Mount from three gates, instead of just one, and would be allowed to buy tickets to enter the local mosques. Many Israeli figures are in favor of the move. The belief is that mosque ticket sales would give the Waqf financial incentive to maintain order on the Mount.
Israel can also console itself with the fact that the European members of UNESCO did not vote in favor of the resolution. These states made efforts behind the scenes to moderate the motion, which was written by Jordan and supported by Arab states. The aforementioned section 14, for example, was eliminated in part due to pressure from France.
The U.S., it stands to be noted, stopped playing a role in UNESCO after Congress decided, under pressure from the Israel lobby, to stop funding any UN agency that will accept Palestine as a member. It is likely that if the U.S. retained its power in the agency, Israel could have gotten a better resolution.
Ultimately, the UNESCO motion isn't unusual in the face of the international dialogue on Jerusalem and the holy sites. Even if most Israelis and the government refuse to accept it, Jerusalem's Old City and its holy sites, just like Hebron and Nablus, are considered to be occupied territory by international law, all international organizations and each member of the UN.
Within this framework, recognizing Jewish links to holy sites in Jerusalem has become a pawn in the Palestinian struggle. So if the Israeli government finds it so important that the world recognize this link, it must sit down and talk to the Palestinians – the exact thing it is avoiding. Israel's continued disregard of this reality is the true backdrop to Israeli politicians' desperate cries.