Israel accuses UNESCO of ‘fueling flames’ with holy site resolution

UNESCO approved a resolution from a group of Arab states that condemned Israel for restricting access of Muslim worshippers to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque

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Israel on Thursday accused the U.N.’s cultural body of fanning tensions in the region by approving a resolution that criticised the Jewish state for “aggressions” against Muslims seeking access to a Jerusalem holy site.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that the UNESCO resolution “aims to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious confrontation” in an abuse of the U.N. agency’s mandate.

“Instead of striving to reduce tensions, the authors of the resolution are working to fuel the flames in the region, using irresponsible religious rhetoric and distorting history.”

UNESCO on Wednesday approved a highly critical resolution from a group of Arab states that condemned Israel for restricting access of Muslim worshippers to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque, sacred in both Islam and Judaism.

The final version of the draft resolution was changed at the last minute to remove a controversial clause saying the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site at which Jews can pray, is an “integral part” of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

However it did reaffirm that two other religious sites, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, were “an integral part of Palestine”.

The resolution comes as a wave of deadly unrest sweeps Israel and the Palestinian territories, with a series of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks as well as violent protests sparking fears of a new Palestinian intifada or uprising.

The spike in violence followed September clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount and revere as their holiest site. The site is the third-holiest in Islam.

To avoid tensions with Muslim worshippers, Jews can visit the compound located in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem but are not allowed to pray there.

However a rise in visits by Jews over their religious holidays sparked fears that Israel’s right-wing government is planning to change the longstanding rule, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying repeatedly he is committed to the status quo.

The resolution was drafted by Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, and was supported by 26 of the 58 member countries on UNESCO’s board.

Twenty-five members abstained while six opposed the resolution and one was absent.

It also calls for the “prompt reconstruction of schools, universities, cultural heritage sites, cultural institutions, media centres and places of worship that have been destroyed or damaged by the consecutive Israeli wars on Gaza.”

The Israeli foreign ministry said the decision was “another step in the continuous Palestinian endeavour to rewrite history and distort the sources of World Heritage in this part of the world.”