The U.N. cultural agency on Friday 6 Oct., 2017 declared the old city located in the West Bank town of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site. The decision sparked outrage among Israeli officials who protested the move with claims that it’s a contradiction to their deep Jewish ties to the biblical town and its ancient shrine.
While the Palestinians are super-excited with UNESCO’s action, it has clearly weakened an already strained relationship between Israel and the UN.
Israel has often accused the agency of being anti-Israeli amid claims that decisions in the world body are made out of political considerations.
‘Another delusional decision by UNESCO,’ was what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it.
Lucia Iglesias, a spokeswoman for UNESCO recently confirmed that Hebron’s old city was added on the agency’s World Heritage list as well as one of the “endangered” sites around the world.
Barely a week after the UN declaration, Washington announced its resolve to withdraw from the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency, citing an obvious anti-Israeli bias and a need for “fundamental reform” in the agency as reasons for the decision.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit.
There have been speculations over the months that Donald Trump’s government was planning to pull out of UNESCO but this impromptu announcement from the State Department remains a surprise to many observers.
The bone of contention in Hebron is venerated by both Jews and Muslims; they see it as the traditional burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
While the Jews refers to the holy site as “the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” Muslims call it “the Ibrahimi Mosque.”
UNESCO has a reputation to protect; the organization is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, among other main objectives.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said UNESCO’s “automatic Arab majority succeeded in passing the proposed resolution that attempts to appropriate the national symbols of the Jewish people.”
She added: “This is a badge of shame for UNESCO, who time after time chooses to stand on the side of lies.”
An angry Netanyahu expressed shock at UNESCO’s declaration on the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron which it said, is a Palestinian site, meaning not Jewish. He was further outraged with the proclamation that “the site is in danger.”
“Not a Jewish site?!” he asked sarcastically. “Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah — our patriarchs and matriarchs!”
Netanyahu pointed to extremists blowing up religious sites in the Middle East and said, “It is only in those places where Israel is, such as Hebron, that freedom of religion for all is ensured.”
Irina Bokova, the outgoing director, expressed disappointment with the US decision and made efforts to defend the body.
‘The US departure is a great loss for the United Nations family and for multilateralism,’ Bokova said in a statement.
She continued, ‘With an ever-increasing threat from terrorism and extremism, the US and UNESCO need each other more than ever now.’
The rift between America and the world body took a different dimension in 2011 when UNESCO voted to include Palestine as a member state. Obama’s government, at that time, withheld its funding but the State Department maintained a UNESCO office where it hoped to monitor proceedings and carry out policy reviews behind the scenes.
According to a report from The Associated Press, Mr Trump’s government now owes about $550 million in back payments.
The State Department said its decision to leave UNESCO will take effect on 31 December, 2018, adding that it will assume a “permanent observer” status instead.
Israeli PM praised Mr Trump’s brevity and good morals, highlighting that Israel has a plan to withdraw from the organization, too.
In his words, UNESCO had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
Danny Danon, who serves as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, applauded Trump and Netanyahu, saying their decisions proves “a new day has come at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.
“The United States stands by Israel and is a true leader for change at the U.N,” Danon added. “The alliance between our two countries is stronger than ever.”