October 29, 2010
Posted: 1726 GMT
A UN agency's decision to identify a Jewish holy site in the West Bank as a mosque and define it and another shrine as Palestinian has prompted cries of bias and distortion from Israel.
"The attempt to separate the nation of Israel from its cultural heritage is absurd," said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement released Friday.
"It is unfortunate that an organization that was established with the goal of promoting the cultural preservation of historical sites around the world, is attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural heritage."
The harsh words stem from a decision earlier in the week by the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which read:
"The Palestinian sites of al-Haram, al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem: the Board voted 44 to one (12 abstentions) to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law..."
It was, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams, the first time the U.N. agency's executive board had referred to the religious site in Bethlehem as a mosque . The one vote against came from the United States.
Williams said the mosque designation had been proposed by some board members earlier in the year.
"Owing to the Rules and Regulations of UNESCO, its Secretariat is not in a position to change the wording of the title of the agenda items proposed for inscription by its Member States...." Williams said in a statement.
"The usual practice at UNESCO is to adopt decisions and resolutions of its governing bodies by consensus as it is believed to help keep focus on operational matters in UNESCO's specific fields of competence and avoid politisation of issues being brought to the attention of the Executive Board."
Known more popularly as Rachel's Tomb, the Bethlehem location is believed to be the burial place of the biblical matriarch Rachel.
The designation of the site as a mosque drew quick rebuke from Jewish religious authorities.
"This decision is contradictory to the truth," said Shmuel Rabinovitch, the official rabbi of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. "The Muslims never claimed this was a holy place for them. The decision adds another location to the Jewish-Arab conflict and has no value, it only causes harm."
The UNESCO statement also included the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron - known to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Both locations are considered holy in Judaism and Islam and have been a point of frequent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades.
In February 2010, Israel announced it would include Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in a list of 150 Zionist heritage sites. Palestinian and international reaction to the announcement was highly critical, and in the days following violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers ensued.
A statement released at the time by the Revolutionary Council of Fatah, the political faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority, called the Israeli plan a move to "consolidate the occupation" and an effort at "judaizing" Palestinian land.