The UK today voted against a controversial Palestinian bid at UNESCO to reclassify historical Jewish holy sites, including Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as Muslim sites.
26 UNESCO representatives voted in favour of the resolution, six voted against, and 25 abstained. Britain, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Estonia opposed the resolution.
The UNESCO resolution condemned the “aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967”.
The resolution proposal had originally sought to name the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, an “integral part” of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, but this demand was removed from the draft earlier today, in an attempt to water it down to attract more support.
All references to Jerusalem as “the occupied capital of Palestine” were withdrawn from the draft, as was a call for the international community to condemn Israel for urging “civilians to carry weapons whenever they leave their homes”.
The proposal was submitted to UNESCO by six Muslim countries on behalf of the Palestinians – Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. The Palestinians are not members of the body’s executive council, and therefore rely on one of the 58 member states to submit the proposal.
Speaking of the motion, a UK official said: “The language is unacceptable, and we don’t think it’s helpful to bring in a provocative motion at times of tensions”. He added: “We regret that there wasn’t more time to discuss the motion”.
On Tuesday, the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said she “deplored” the proposal, and warned that it “could be seen to alter the status of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls and incite further tensions”.
The UNESCO executive board had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on the resolution, but Bokova postponed the vote until Wednesday.
In a statement, she called on the UNESCO board “to take decisions that do not further inflame tensions on the ground and that encourage respect for the sanctity of the Holy Sites”.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday said efforts to inflame tensions must be rejected: “The United Nations and all its institutions have a responsibility to work against any escalation of the conflict. UNESCO must reject any attempt to deny the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount”.
In a statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called the proposal “an attempt to distort history and blur the connection between the Jewish people and its holiest place and to create a false reality”.