Palestinian Authority welcomes passing of UNESCO resolution sharply criticizing Israeli policies

Following a controversial UNESCO vote that saw the adoption of a draft resolution that sharply criticized Israeli policies around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while supposedly rejecting Jewish ties to the holy site — referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount — was received warmly by the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement released Thursday. Meanwhile, the resolution also criticized Israeli policies at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and strongly condemned Israeli military campaigns in the besieged Gaza Strip, while urging an end to the near decade-long Israeli blockade on the Palestinian enclave. The resolution was passed after 24 countries voted in its favor, six voted against, and 26 abstained from the vote, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. While the resolution did not outrightly reject Jewish ties to the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount, it was highly critical of Israeli policies in and around the site and Israeli attempts at changing the status quo, which prohibits Jewish worship at the site, and referred to the site only by its Islamic name “Al-Aqsa/Haram al-Sharif,” and did not mention the Jewish name “Temple Mount.”

However, the resolution did make clear that UNESCO recognizes the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem for the “three monotheistic religions” — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — and highlighted the significance of the holy sites in Hebron and Bethlehem for all three religions.“The only way to be treated like a normal state is if it starts acting like one”The PA statement said that the decision to adopt the UNESCO resolution reflected the “continued commitment of the majority of member states to confront impunity and uphold the principles upon which UNESCO was founded.” The statement continued to express the PA’s disappointment with several countries — mainly European — which had changed their votes that were initially in favor of the resolution, after what the statement referred to as Israel’s “PR bullying.”“Rather than spending millions to spin its illegal colonization into normalcy and distort reality, Israel, the occupying power, must understand that the only way to be treated like a normal state is if it starts acting like one, by ending its occupation of Palestine and seizing its irresponsible and illegal actions in the occupied land of the State of Palestine, especially East Jerusalem,” the statement read. The statement added that Palestinian activities at the UN and on the international level would not be “deterred by distortions and smear campaigns,” and would continue pressuring the international community to take responsibility and act on Israel’s violations of international law “which have continued with impunity for half a century.”Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision, calling it “delusional” and adding that “to say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China and that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids.””With this absurd decision, UNESCO lost the little legitimization it had left. But I believe that the historical truth is stronger and the truth will win” headded.

However, the resolution mainly focused on Israeli policies around the holy site that UNESCO and rights groups have claimed increase tensions between Palestinian worshippers and Jewish visitors, while sparking fears in Palestinians that Israel could further deny their right to access Al-Aqsa. Netanyahu did not release a comment responding to any of the criticisms presented by the UNESCO resolution.
Israeli excavations in and around the Old City
The resolution also criticized Israel’s continued excavations around the holy site, saying that UNESCO “deeply deplores the failure of Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City.” Some rights groups claim that these excavations often seek to promote Jewish heritage and attachment to the occupied city, while erasing Palestinian history, in order to promote claims of Jewish ownership and further displace Palestinians, particularly those living in neighborhoods around the Old City. Israel frequently permits excavations and archaeological digs in occupied East Jerusalem, specifically around the Al-Aqsa mosque, that threaten the structural integrity of Palestinian homes and holy sites in the area. Palestinians have routinely reported their homes being damaged as a result of Israeli construction. In the past, tunnels have partially collapsed and caused holes to open up above them, threatening Palestinian homes, roads, and a local mosque.
The right-wing settler organization Elad is behind much of the excavations in occupied East Jerusalem, as the group is one of the main financiers of the archeological digs around the Old City, and also runs the City of David National Park which was established to promote Jewish connection to Jerusalem, while neglecting Palestinian history. The park is the only tourist site in Israel run by a private organization, according to the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ)The Elad group is also a strong force in the Israeli settler movement in East Jerusalem, leading a takeover of 25 buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan last year, which constituted the largest incursion of Israeli settlers into a Palestinian neighborhood in the past 20 years, ARIJ reported.
Israeli settler raids on Al-Aqsa

The resolution strongly condemned Israeli settlers entering Al-Aqsa and praying in an attempt to challenge longstanding international agreements that prohibit Jewish worship at the site. The Israeli incursions routinely erupt into clashes with Palestinian worshipers who have long held fears that the Israeli government has sought to change the status quo at the site and further restrict Palestinian access. Following Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has maintained a compromise with the Islamic trust that controls the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to not allow non-Muslim prayer in the area. Jordan, which runs the Waqf organization administering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, has custodianship rights over Muslim holy places in Jerusalem under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.Israeli forces regularly escort Jewish visitors to the site, however, leading to tension with Palestinian worshipers and residents of the area.Tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound were a main contributor to the unrest that began last October, after right-wing Israelis made frequent visits to the site during a succession of Jewish holidays.

In the resolution, UNESCO “firmly deplored” the routine and continuous “storming of Al-Aqṣa Mosque by Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces,” and urged Israel, as the occupying power to “take necessary measures to prevent provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity of Al-Aqṣa Mosque.” The resolution went on to “deeply decry” Israel’s treatment of Muslim worshippers at the site and the detention and injury of Jordanian Waqf employees, while condemning Israeli employee incursions into the holy compound, particularly “Israeli Antiquities” officials who frequently ban Waqf employees from accessing the site, while prohibiting much-needed renovations from being carried out. The besieged Gaza StripIsrael came under heavy criticism in the resolution for its deadly military campaigns on the small Palestinian territory, saying that UNESCO “deplores the killing and injury of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, as well as the continuous negative impact in the fields of competence of UNESCO, the attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities, including breaches of inviolability of UNRWA schools.”
UNESCO also sharply criticized Israel’s near decade-long blockade of the coastal Palestinian enclave, which “harmfully affects the free and sustained movement of personnel and humanitarian relief items as well as the intolerable number of casualties among Palestinian children, the attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities and the denial of access to education.” UNESCO went on to demand that Israel “immediately ease this blockade.”A 51-day Israeli offensive in 2014, termed “Operation Protective Edge” by Israeli authorities, resulted in the killings of 1,462 Palestinian civilians, a third of whom were children, according to the United Nations.The Gaza Strip has suffered under an Israeli military blockade since 2007, when Hamas became the de facto ruling party in the territory.
Residents of Gaza suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as the consequences of three devastating wars with Israel since 2008.
Residents have continued to experience trauma in their daily lives following the 2014 Israeli offensive, as reconstruction efforts have moved at a glacial pace and with some 75,000 Palestinians still displaced after losing their homes in 2014.The UN has warned that the besieged Palestinian territory could become “uninhabitable” by 2020, as its 1.8 million residents remain in dire poverty due to the Israeli blockade that has crippled the economy.

Shimon Peres: The Peacemaker Who Wasn’t

New York Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Now that the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president and prime minister, is over and the effusive praise of world leaders has subsided, it’s time for a critical look at his legacy. While many remember him as a courageous and tireless advocate for peace, Palestinians recall a different man — one who was very good at talking peace but not so good at walking the walk.

Much of Mr. Peres’s reputation is based on his role in the Oslo Accords. In the early 1990s, he was involved in back-channel discussions that led to the historic signing of Oslo I, also known as the Declaration of Principles, by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization amid much fanfare on the White House lawn. In 1994, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

It was during this period that I first met Mr. Peres, after I helped to initiate contact between Israel and the P.L.O., along with the Israeli academics Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld. As foreign minister in Mr. Rabin’s government, Mr. Peres followed up on these secret meetings, leading to Israel’s agreeing — for the first time — to negotiate with the P.L.O.

Back then, Palestinians were optimistic about a future free of Israel’s dominance. We hoped that Mr. Peres and other Israeli leaders would follow up their statements in support of peace with determined action to reach a just and lasting agreement to end the conflict. As it turned out, there was little correlation between their lofty rhetoric and their actual policies.

The promise of the Oslo peace process was never fulfilled, in large part because of the failures of Mr. Peres and the “peace camp” in Israel, but also thanks to the flaws in the Declaration of Principles itself. Because the declaration enabled Israel to act with impunity over destructive unilateral measures like settlement expansion— given the lack of will on the part of the United States to hold Israel to account — it was inevitable that a culture of hate and racism against the Palestinians would ensue.

During the negotiations of the accord, discussion of core issues — such as borders and settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem — was postponed in favor of a gradual approach without any guarantees, arbitration process or accountability, giving Israel a free hand to prejudge the outcome. Oslo developed into a process for the sake of a process, rather than a means to end the conflict.

Mr. Peres once told me that engaging in peace talks is like being an airplane pilot. The pilot’s mother wants him to fly low and slow, but that’s a recipe for disaster. In order to make peace, you need to fly high and fast, otherwise you will crash and fail. Unfortunately, Mr. Peres did not take his own advice.

Continue reading the main story

Crucially, Israel persisted in building settlements on occupied land that was supposed to be part of a Palestinian state, and even expanded the program. Under Mr. Peres’s tenure as foreign minister, defense minister and prime minister during the early days of the Oslo process in the 1990s, Israel continued to create facts on the ground that undermined the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Palestinians believed was the aim of the peace process.

In the case of Jerusalem, in 1993 Mr. Peres promised me and the Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini that Israel would respect the integrity of Palestinian institutions in occupied East Jerusalem and allow them to remain open. He went so far as to send a letter to Norway’s foreign minister, Johan Holst, with his assurances. Yet when Israel shut down the P.L.O.’s Jerusalem headquarters, the Orient House, and other major Palestinian institutions in 2001, Mr. Peres, who was once again foreign minister, this time under the hard-liner Ariel Sharon, did nothing.

As the world turned its attention to other conflicts, thinking the Oslo process would lead to peace, Palestinians saw Israel’s occupation become more entrenched, rather than being dismantled. In addition to accelerating settlement growth, under Mr. Peres’s direction, Israel imposed new restrictions on Palestinians and their freedom of movement. After seven years of negotiations, during which the situation of Palestinians deteriorated steadily, growing disillusionment and despair that Israel was using the peace process as cover to steal more Palestinian land led to the outbreak of the second intifada.

While Palestinians certainly made mistakes, Israel, as the stronger and occupying power, held most of the cards during the Oslo process. This imbalance was worsened by the American mediators, who frequently acted more like “Israel’s lawyer,” as one of them later wrote, than fair and neutral referees.

Finally, the Oslo process failed because Mr. Peres and other Israeli leaders never fully accepted the concept of a truly independent state alongside Israel. Rather than a dismantling of the occupation and an evolution of Palestinian independence as initially envisioned, successive Israeli governments ended up undermining Palestinian statehood and reinventing the occupation as an unaccountable system of control and expansion.

If Mr. Peres had acted swiftly and decisively in pursuit of peace upon assuming power after the 1995 assassination of Mr. Rabin by an Israeli extremist opposed to Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, Oslo might have been salvaged. Instead, he attempted to compete with the right-wing Likud Party on its terms. This culminated in the Qana massacre, when Lebanese civilians sheltering in a United Nations compound were shelled by Israeli artillery, during the bloody attack on Lebanon that he ordered shortly before the 1996 election. As a result, many in Israel who genuinely supported peace lost faith in Mr. Peres, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, and he lost the election.

Of course, Palestinians’ faith in Mr. Peres had been tested before. Not forgotten by Palestinians and others in the region is the role that he played arming the Israeli forces that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948; the regional nuclear arms race he incited by initiating Israel’s secret atomic weapons program in the 1950s and ’60s; his responsibility for establishing some of the first Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the ’70s; his public discourse as a minister in Likud-led coalitions, justifying Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and extremist ideology; and his final role in Israeli politics as president, serving as a fig leaf for the radically pro-settler government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, it was Mr. Netanyahu’s rise to prime minister in 1996 that torpedoed any lingering hopes for peace. A few years later, he would be caught on video boasting to a group of settlers that he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”

After the collapse of the Oslo process and the ensuing violence, the dual myths of the “generous offer” made to Mr. Arafat at Camp David and the claim that there was no Palestinian partner for peace took hold in Israel. This narrative helped fuel a rising tide of right-wing extremism that continues to this day. Mr. Peres himself helped to perpetuate these myths as foreign minister under Mr. Sharon, doing tremendous damage to subsequent efforts to restart negotiations.

Over the past decade, the Labor Party that Mr. Peres once led has become all but irrelevant as a diluted version of the Likud. At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line, rejectionist Likud and even more extreme parties have come to dominate Israeli politics, generating a toxic mix of racism, religious messianism and hyper-nationalism.

It’s true that compared with Mr. Netanyahu and other contemporary Israeli politicians, Mr. Peres was a dove, but that’s saying very little. In order to truly measure the man, he must be judged on his actions, not his words and reputation — nor, indeed, in comparison to the dangerous right-wing fanatics who now make up Israel’s government.

Regardless of the flaws in the process, the pursuit of peace remains a noble endeavor. But Mr. Peres’s failure to translate lofty ideals into action continues to haunt that elusive quest in Palestine and Israel.