Israel has finally agreed to allow UN cultural inspectors to review its conservation of historic sites in Jerusalem's old city. Hugh Naylor reports
Palestinians hope Unesco visit to East Jerusalem will bolster their claim for capital
RAMALLAH //Palestinians are hoping an agreement that allows United Nations cultural inspectors into Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem will leverage their historic claim to the city.
After years of negotiating, Israel agreed on Tuesday to allow a team from the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to review its conservation of historic sites in Jerusalem's Old City. The Palestinians, in return, would temporarily postpone tabling resolutions critical of Israel at the UN agency.
The landmark agreement, brokered with support from the United States, Russia, Jordan, Brazil and Unesco's head, Irina Bokova, also reflects widespread concern that the divided city's iconic edifices - which are holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians - are not being preserved.
One senior Palestinian official expressed hope that the visit would yield broader international coordination in efforts to preserve and refurbish ancient buildings, churches and mosques in the Old City, which Unesco has listed as an "endangered" World Heritage site.
Citing what it calls the UN's bias, Israel has routinely denied Unesco delegations access to Jerusalem.
"This sets a precedent for both sides because before, the Israelis would just refuse any investigation like this," said the official, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state, yet they face restrictions and municipal neglect in the city that Israel annexed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Since then, they have been forced to look on as Israeli authorities began transforming the city with settlements and archaeological projects emphasising Jewish history.
With Palestinians winning recognition as a non-member observer state in the UN General Assembly last November, the PLO hoped to win more influence over the city. Historic preservation was one such way.
"Now that we have more tools to leverage, Israeli diplomats have become more concerned," said the PLO official, who attributed the agreement to mounting Israeli concern over Palestinian threats to join more global organisations.
The Palestinians joined Unesco as full members in 2011 and have also considered membership in the International Criminal Court, where they could bring war crimes proceedings against Israel.
Omar Awadallah, head of UN affairs at the Palestinian Authority foreign ministry, said the Unesco team would examine the Old City's buildings, churches and 16th-Century Ottoman walls from May 19 to June 1.
The inspections would include the Haram Al Sharif, or Temple Mount, the Biblical location of Jewish temples and where tradition says the Prophet Mohammed started his ascent into heaven on a winged beast.
The Unesco team would examine the Mughrabi Ascent, through which Israeli Jews and other non-Muslims access the Haram Al Sharif. Its sand causeway collapsed more than a decade ago, and proposed Israeli renovations to the site have triggered Palestinian protests.
The Unesco team plans to present its findings and recommendations during the agency's June meeting in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, said Mr Awadallah. He referred to the Unesco visit as "a precedent in promoting Palestinian rights" in Jerusalem.
Palestinian officials would refrain from pursing five resolutions against Israel at Unesco until the autumn, when they would re-evaluate whether to table them, Mr Awadallah said. Those resolutions include condemnation of Israel's attempts to alter Palestinian school curricula in East Jerusalem, as well as proposed renovations to the Mughrabi Ascent and the Israeli prohibition of Palestinian students in Gaza from studying at West Bank universities.
The agreement follows efforts by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He pressured both parties to refrain from initiating "negative moves in international organisations", The New York Times reported yesterday.
Nimrod Barkan, Israel's Unesco ambassador, lauded the agreement as "the culmination of a joint Israeli-American effort", with Russia's help, to "try to move to depoliticise Unesco".
Israel has long accused Unesco of bias. In 1974, the agency stripped Israel of its membership over allegations of damage to the Haram Al Sharif during archaeological excavations.
The US and Israel protested against the Palestinian accession to Unesco by suspending their funding to the agency, which amounts to more than 22 per cent of its annual budget, crippling its activities worldwide.