x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Unesco role in Jerusalem will aid Palestinians

The agreement to allow Unesco to inspect East Jerusalem's historical sites should be a step towards the de-politicisation of the city.

For years, Israel has blocked attempts by the United Nations to inspect East Jerusalem's historical sites, claiming, spuriously, that UN inspectors were biased. But this week, after pressure from the United States, Israel has finally agreed to allow cultural inspectors to visit Jerusalem's Old City.

There is a veneer of irony to the agreement: Israel agreed to let in inspectors from the UN's Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on the condition that Palestinians postpone five resolutions condemning Israel that the Palestinians were due to lodge with Unesco's executive board in Paris. The agreement is a reminder that pushing for statehood through international organisation and peaceful resistance is Palestinians' best weapon.

In recent years, Israel's illegal settlements have brought about increased condemnation from western countries previously tolerant of Israel's actions. This trend was epitomised in the successful vote at the UN's General Assembly in November to upgrade the status of Palestine at the institution to an "observer" state. The vote was a resounding victory for the Palestinians not only because of the symbolic upgrade but because it won the vote of the vast majority of member states.

The latest episode is the fruit of that move. The pressure of the Palestinians joining international institutions has finally forced Israel's hand. Israel has historically tried to avoid external oversight over the historical places of Jerusalem. Unesco experts will now be able to survey a number of historical sites in Jerusalem's Old City.

The resolutions that Palestinians were to present at Unesco would have condemned Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank and of the endangerment of the "Arab character" of Jerusalem, according to Israeli media. Palestinians have described such activities as "a religious war" against Muslim holy sites, over which the PA says Israel has no jurisdiction. Palestinians can still take that issue to Unesco in the future.

The US also has an important role, both in pushing Israel to comply with international obligations and in ending its mean-spirited financial boycott of Unesco. This agreement should be a step towards the de-politicisation of the city. Israel has to accept that Jerusalem has Muslim and Christian history as well as Jewish. Despite the often-malign intentions of the Israelis, Jerusalem will always be a city for three faiths.