At the UN, Israel loses again


UNESCO recently issued two resolutions that Israel could do nothing about. It designated Hebron’s Old City and Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank a Palestinian World Heritage site. And also put them on a list of sites considered in danger. On both counts, Israel was stymied.

A resolution passed by a committee of the UN cultural agency accused Israel of an “alarming” number of violations that included vandalism, property damage, and other attacks that had an impact on its authenticity and integrity. The resolution called on the Israeli authorities to “cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works and projects,” which it stated were “illegal under international law”.

Naturally, Israeli officials missed no opportunity to grab a headline or two. The accusations ranged from UNESCO wanting to “wipe the Jewish state off the map” to UNESCO being “anti-Semitic” and from UNESCO being “delusional” to being a “political tool”.

To be sure, the resolution does not refer in any way to the affinity or lack thereof of any people or religion to Hebron. Contrary to Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that “only in places in which Israel has a presence, like Hebron, there is freedom of religion for everyone,” Israel strictly limits the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank into the Old City of Hebron.

Israel’s warning that the resolution might undermine the efforts by US President Donald Trump to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process does not make much sense. UNESCO resolutions will not hasten the end of the 50-year Israeli occupation, just as UN Security Council resolutions do not stop construction in the settlements. A political intifada will not get any closer to a Palestinian state than did the two violent Palestinian intifadas against Israel.

Netanyahu said that in retaliation he would cut another $1 million from the membership money Israel sends to the UN. The funding cut is Israel’s fourth in the past year, taking its UN contribution from $11 million to just $1.7 million. Each cut has come after various UN bodies voted to adopt decisions that Israel said discriminated against it. At this rate, Israel will eventually owe nothing to the UN.

True, the Muslim states do enjoy an automatic majority in most international forums, but Israel has the benefit of automatic US support. Trump spoke out against Resolution 2334 after he was elected - the one adopted last year which condemned any measures aimed at altering the status of Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 - and his UN envoy Nikki Haley was quick to condemn UNESCO for its vote on Hebron.

While the Palestinians have been thwarted on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza to create a state or remove Israel’s presence from areas they claim, they have been successful in international forums like UNESCO. The Palestinian Authority successfully sought membership in UNESCO as a state in 2011, as part of a campaign to join numerous UN agencies. It won membership in a vote of 107 to 14, presaging the recent secret Hebron ballot in which 12 voted in favor and three against with six abstentions.

The world has long viewed the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territory. The world has never recognized Israel’s unilateral annexation of Jerusalem nor the legality of its settlement enterprise in the West Bank where Palestinians seek to establish an independent state.

UNESCO, like other UN bodies, criticizes Israel’s actions, and should continue to do so. Lobbying by Israeli allies or even whittling away at the automatic pro-Palestinian majority hasn’t worked. Palestinians will hopefully use the coming years to try to register more sites.