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US reviewing ties with UNESCO over Hebron decision

Une vue sur le tombeau des Patriarches qui abriterait la dépouille d'Abraham, père des trois religions monothéistes, le 29 juin 2017 à Hébron
HAZEM BADER (AFP)
Netanyahu says vote is 'delusional,' will cut $1m of funding from UN to open Jewish heritage museum in Hebron

The United States said on Friday it was reviewing ties with UNESCO after the UN cultural agency declared the Old City of Hebron to be Palestinian territory and a world heritage site.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said the UNESCO decision was an "affront to history" and "further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency."

"Today's vote does no one any good and causes much harm," said Haley in a statement.

The United States stopped funding the UN agency in 2011 after it admitted the Palestinians as a member-state, but it remains a member of UNESCO's 58-member executive board.

Haley said however that following the vote, "the United States is currently evaluating the appropriate level of its continued engagement at UNESCO."

The peak scientific and cultural body of the United Nations, UNESCO, has for the second time in a week passed a resolution admonishing Israel, this time approving a Palestinian push to declare the Old City of Hebron a World Heritage Site and in urgent need of protection.

In a secret ballot, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, meeting in Poland on Friday, voted 12-3 in favor, a few days after the same committee condemned Israel's control over East Jerusalem, provoking an angry response from a raft of Israeli officials.

Claiming that Hebron's Old City is endangered, the Palestinian Authority (PA) requested that the status of the flashpoint West Bank city be fast-tracked onto the 2017 list due to "alarming details about the Israeli violations in Al-Khalil/ Hebron, including the continuous acts of vandalism, property damage, and other attacks.”

Israel has already protested the inclusion of the Old City of Hebron, home to the imposing Tomb of the Patriarchs, the resting place of the Biblical figures Jacob, Isaac and Abraham and an important religious site to Muslims and Jews alike.

HAZEM BADER (AFP/File)

The vote, which Israel was reportedly trying to influence behind the scenes, elicited a scathing rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as "another delusional decision" and said that elsewhere in the Middle East "mosques, churches, synagogues and other places are being bombed."

He also announced via Twitter later on Friday that he would be cutting $1 million of funding from the UN to establish a Jewish heritage museum in Hebron.

President Reuven Rivlin struck a similar note. "UNESCO seems intent on sprouting anti-Israel lies, while it remains silent as the region's heritage is destroyed by brutal extremists," he said in a statement.

The head of Israel's UNESCO committee, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, said "Israel will not resume its cooperation with UNESCO so long as it remains a political tool, rather than professional organization."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also voiced condemnation of the vote.

“UNESCO unfortunately succumbed to the manipulations of the Palestinian Authority to politicize holy sites,” said the group's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt.

“The international community should be aware that efforts such as the Palestinian campaign to claim holy sites through UNESCO, not only undermines efforts to build Israeli-Palestinian trust, but reinforces the perception among Israelis and Jews around the world that the Palestinians do not recognize the Jewish connection to Israel and are not serious partners to peace."

HAZEM BADER (AFP/Archives)

Israel refused to allow a team from UNESCO to visit Hebron ahead of the vote, with Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Sharma HaCohen saying that by refusing the team access for a field visit, Israel was taking a “principled and strategic” stand.

“Israel won’t take part in and won’t legitimize any Palestinian political moves under the guise of culture and heritage,” Shama HaCohen said.

An amendment submitted by several Arab states condemning Israel for not permitting the visit was added to the motion.

The Israeli foreign ministry said that adding the Hebron site to the World Heritage list would "ignore the sensitivity of and Jewish connection to the city of Hebron" and would "further the organization's politicization," according to a spokesman.

The Palestinian foreign ministry called the decision a "success" for Palestinian diplomacy.

"This vote is a success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Palestinian submission to fast-track the recognition of Hebron noted "the negative, accumulative impact of Israeli violations including vandalism, property damage and other attacks, all of which appear to impact adversely on the integrity of the property, some irreversibly."

They also claimed that Israeli actions over the last few months, including excavating underneath a mosque, installing cement barriers and preventing local restoration work.

An amendment submitted by several Arab states condemned Israeli for not permitting a site visit was added to the motion.

Approximately 180,000 Palestinians live in Hebron, along with an Israeli enclave in the Old City housing several hundred settlers.

The top UNESCO official for World Heritage, Mechtild Roessler, said she hoped "there will not be a controversy" over the Hebron site.

"I hope it will be a debate about substance. This committee is not about politics," she said in a briefing before the meeting.

UNESCO enraged Israel in May when its executive board ratified a resolution that identified Israel as "the occupying power" in Jerusalem and called on it to rescind any move changing the city's "character and status."

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UnNecessary Organization.

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