Israel angry over UNESCO description of West Bank holy site

Photo: Israel angry over UNESCO description of West Bank holy site / Arab-Israel Relations

Israel angrily condemned Friday a series of decisions by UNESCO regarding historic sites in the occupied West Bank and in Jerusalem, saying they were politically biased moves, dpa reported.

The board of the UN's cultural organization, in its biannual session which ended last week, adopted five proposals initiated by Arab member states regarding sites which are considered holy to both Jews and Muslims.

One of them, in what Israelis charged was a first, used an allegedly politically motivated title to describe a site just outside the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem, which is holy to Jews and Muslim.

According to some traditions the site contains the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel.

Referring to the structure as the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb" in its statement, the UNESCO board voted 44 to one, with 12 abstentions, to reaffirm the site was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year sparked Arab anger when he included holy sites in the occupied West Bank in a list of Israeli and Jewish national heritage sites which his government wants to renovate.

Rachel's Tomb was on that list, prompting Arab member states, including Jordan, to push for the UNESCO executive board decisions.

Israelis charged that Rachel's Tomb was traditionally referred to also by Muslims as such in Arabic, as "Qubat Rachel," although the structure also traditionally included a Muslim prayer house adjacent to a Muslim cemetery.

They charge that the name "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque" only came into use following Arab-Israeli riots in 1996 and was coined by Palestinians for political reasons.

Israel Army Radio Friday quoted a Foreign Ministry statement as charging the statement used "crudely politically deceptive" language and that this distorted and sidestepped the body's cultural mission.

A spokesman also called the UNESCO decision "shameful" and charged it "reeked of political bias."

The UNESCO executive board also expressed "deep concern" over "ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works" at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled, historic Old City.

The Israel Hayom daily quoted Israel's Western Wall and Holy Sites Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz as charging that the international body "responsible for heritage has turned heritage into politics" and was "distorting history."

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