Seeking Justice in Jerusalem: UNESCO Passes Resolution Critical of Israel’s Activities

On Tuesday, 2 May 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a resolution under Item 30 termed “Occupied Palestine” that expressly criticizes Israel’s illegal actions in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Al-Khalil/Hebron and Bethlehem.

The resolution reiterates that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is “null and void” and calls on the occupying Power to rescind any “legislative and administrative measures and actions” taken to “alter the character and status” of the city. Furthermore, it urges the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the illegal “persistent excavations, tunneling, works and projects in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem”. Such actions further undermine the prospects of East Jerusalem as future capital of an independent State of Palestine. The resolution moreover deplores Israeli military actions in Gaza, in particular attacks on educational and cultural facilities, as well as illegal Israeli activities at the two Palestinian sites of Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi in Al- Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem.

The resolution, submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan, was passed with 22 countries in favor, 10 voting against, and 23 abstaining1 - which constitutes a smaller majority of countries voting in favor than in the past. This diminished backing, hailed by Israeli authorities, largely stems from Israeli and US-American intensive diplomatic pressure aimed at stifling support and dismantling the agreement between EU countries and the Arab states that initiated the resolution.

The approved resolution was softer in its criticism of Israel’s illegal actions than those previously passed by UNESCO. This was a result of consultations between Palestine, other Arab states, and EU nations led by Germany, based on which the Arab states made significant concessions, especially by agreeing to omit references to the Al-Aqsa Mosque or to Haram Al-Sharif. Moreover, references to the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – were added.

Steady Erosion of the Status of Jerusalem

Due to its enormous religious, cultural and historic significance, the status of Jerusalem has been one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the context of the Palestine question as addressed by the UN. Israeli activities since 1948 have eroded the traditional status of Jerusalem as center of Palestinian political, cultural, religious, and social life and continue to subvert the future status of East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state.

General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of 29 November 1947 provided for the City of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum under a special international regime:

In the 1948 war, Israel annexed West Jerusalem in contravention to international opinion, which had ordered the internationalization of Jerusalem. After its illegal occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel introduced discriminatory legislative measures aimed at the “Judaization” of the city. These illegal practices were entrenched through its formal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980, pursuant to which Israel institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian East Jerusalemites and furthered an apartheid planning and zoning regime. The Israeli Knesset adopted the so-called “Basic Law” by which it declared that “Jerusalem, whole and united, is the capital of Israel”. This step has since been condemned in UN resolutions – the earliest being General Assembly Resolution 36/120 of 10 December 1981.

The pursuit of “Greater Jerusalem” by the Occupying Power in an effort to forestall a negotiated permanent status of Jerusalem overshadowed the peace processes. The 1999 E1 Master Plan, deplored in uncountable resolutions, implied the creation of an urban bloc between the large urban settlement Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, exacerbated the isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of occupied Palestine and disrupted the territorial contiguity.

Throughout the years until today, UN resolutions have repeatedly reiterated that all measures aimed at altering the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith. In direct contravention to UN resolutions,

• Israel continues its illegal settlement activities, particularly the so-called E-1 plan,

• To cement control over the City, Israel has perpetuated its “Jerusalem closure policy” by erecting checkpoints, constructing the Separation Wall, and imposing a permit regime. Israel restricts Palestinian access to and residence in East Jerusalem and further isolates the city from Palestine.

• The Occupying Power also persistently demolishes Palestinian homes, revokes residency rights and evicts and displaces Palestinians.

• Besides, it regularly violates the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem through, inter alia, military incursions, excavations, and acts of incitement.

Israel has continued these illegal activities to further the “de-Palestinization” of Jerusalem in an effort to change the demography of Jerusalem in favor of a Jewish majority, with a 70 to 30 percent ratio of Jews to Palestinians, with the larger aim of undermining claims to Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian State.

Mahdi Hashweh, an elderly Palestinian living in the African Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) correspondent, has witnessed Israeli practices throughout his life. Residing in East Jerusalem as “permanent resident”, he cannot leave Jerusalem because he might otherwise face dispossession and eviction under the Absentees’ Property Law. Israel has perpetuated its discriminatory and apartheid urban planning policy and has deepened spatial segregation. It has also significantly increased its military forces in the City to perpetuate its control over the Palestinian population.

Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem with the author of the article, Mahdi contrasted the rich human history and religious and cultural heritage of the place with the idea of a Jewish state and Jewish supremacy under which all other groups are oppressed. Mahdi led them to a Palestinian family home, the upper floor of which had been confiscated by settlers and cordoned off from the rest of the house. A metal door carrying an Israeli flag now cut the house into two. On the rooftop, a military base had been established, rendering Israeli rule absolute.

The situation in occupied East Jerusalem represents a microcosm of Israeli violations taking place across the remaining occupied Palestine. In the context of the reiterated criticism towards some of Israel’s most flagrant violations by the international community, Palestinian leaders welcomed the passing of the UNESCO resolution as a “step forward” and a “victory for international law” in the face of Israel’s continuous “campaigns of distortion and destruction”2. Leading figures such as Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki reiterated the will of the Palestinian people to defend their “heritage and culture”, their “past and future” and to withstand Israeli violations “armed with international law” on the path to a “future free from occupation”.

The Grim Reality of Israeli Lawlessness

While the verdict of the resolution is unequivocal and longstanding, Israeli government officials as usual expressed outrage about the UN’s alleged “ludicrous and anti-Israel nature” and went to great lengths to delegitimize the resolution. The Israeli foreign ministry, which had already tried to undermine UNESCO’s work prior to the Tuesday session, reviled the resolution as “unnecessary politicization of UNESCO” that would not affect their “determination to operate in Jerusalem”. Indeed, Israeli Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat vowed to continue illegal settlement construction and Judaization activities in East Jerusalem and proclaimed the Holy City to be “the eternal home and capital of the Jewish people.”

Words were followed by actions. Not only did Israel proclaim its withdrawal of $2 million in funding for UNESCO and summon the ambassador of Sweden (as only EU country having voted in favor) in acts of retaliation, but it rampantly executed further home demolitions in East Jerusalem. On Thursday morning, 4 May 2017, Israeli authorities raided homes without prior warning and demolished three Palestinian buildings and commercial structures in East Jerusalem under the pretext of a lack of nearly unobtainable licenses. Ashraf Fawaqa’s family from the village of Sur Bahir had been trying to obtain building permits for their house for six years and paying more than 200,000 shekels ($55,403) in lawyers’ fees. Israeli forces destroyed the family homes despite the Supreme Court’s freeze on the demolition, rendering him, his wife, and their four little children homeless.

According to UN figures, as of 17 April 2017, Israel demolished 59 Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year, displacing at least 135 Palestinians. The previous year 2016, the Occupying Power demolished a total of 190 Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem. The constant threat of land seizure and home demolitions in East Jerusalem causes an atmosphere of terror. This is deepened by escalating violent night raids in Palestinian neighborhoods by Israeli police and the suffocating militarization of the city.

Particularly the Old City of Jerusalem has become an epitome of militarization as it is surrounded by squads of soldiers and police, sometimes on horses, and surveilled by “security cameras”. Palestinians, among them young children and elderly people, undergo body searches when passing, often facing acts of intimidation, harassment, and violence by Israeli forces. Responding to the rise in violence since September 2015, Israel passed new laws with one order allowing occupying forces to shoot at anyone allegedly threatening the life of a third party and moreover approved the arming of Jewish Israeli civilians. Many Palestinians feel threatened by the constant military presence and armament of Israel’s civilian population, including settlers, especially in the face of the mounting evidence of extrajudicial killings by the occupying forces.

Issa Hashem, a 14 year-old Palestinian, is afraid of leaving his home in the Old City of Jerusalem as Israeli soldiers occupy every corner of the neighborhoods.

Under military occupation, coping with everyday life and pursuing social, cultural, and political life is a perilous endeavor in East Jerusalem. Regardless of whether Palestinians kiss their children goodnight, initiate a cultural festival, hold a community gathering, or organize a peaceful demonstration, Israeli authorities and military forces can raid homes and shut down the assemblies or violently disperse them at any time. Thereby, Israel creates conditions that constitute part of the larger policy of demographic engineering aimed at forcing Palestinians out of Jerusalem and at undermining claims of East Jerusalem as capital of Palestine.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Israeli activities since 1948 have eroded the traditional status of Jerusalem as the centre of Palestinian life and continue to subvert the future status of East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state – in direct contravention to innumerable UN resolutions. Rather than bowing to pressure by Israel and its allies, and misrepresenting imperative calls for Israeli compliance with international law “ideologically charged”, “anti-Semitic”, “ludicrously biased”, etc., the respective Member States must change their contribution to positive participation in accordance with their international obligations.

The failure to effectively address Israel’s system of occupation and apartheid – one that negates humanity, erodes the rule of law, and scorns international commitments – would signify a further trampling of human rights and a regression into lawlessness. When Independence Day celebrations of one nation serve as reminder of an ongoing Nakba of another, then indeed such occasion can be seized for redress. To finally reach a just peace that can be celebrated by all, the occupying system must be disassembled and an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as capital must be born.

In the light of this, GICJ recommends to the UN, to its relevant bodies, and to UN Members States to:

• Take all necessary measures to finally bring an end to the prolonged occupation of Palestine and fulfill Palestinians’ right to national self-determination, which involves the end of all annexationist and settlement activity and the illegal and destructive blockade on Gaza;

• Pressure the Israeli government to immediately cease settlement and annexation policies and practices aimed at altering the character, status, and demography of occupied Palestine, particularly East Jerusalem;

• Urge Israel to cease its discriminatory planning, development, and land system in occupied Palestine and within Israel and to rescind all policies and practices resulting in the forced eviction and transfer of Palestinians, including demolitions, confiscations, and the creation of a coercive environment;

• Demand Israel to comply fully with the provisions of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and thus to dismantle the Separation Wall.

1. The 22 countries voting in favor of the resolution included Russia, China, Brazil, Sweden, South Africa, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Chad and seven Arab countries. 10 countries voted against the resolution, including the United States, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, Greece, Paraguay, Ukraine and Togo. 23 countries abstained, including France, Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, India, Argentina, Mexico and Japan. Other abstaining nations were Haiti, Dominican Republic, Saint Kitts, Kenya, Trinidad, Albania, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda, El Salvador, South Korea and Sri Lanka. Three countries did not participate in the vote - Nepal, Serbia and Turkmenistan.

2. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki, quoted by AlJazeera.

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