The move by UNESCO on October 13 to condemn Israeli interference at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem is a development, which while seemingly trivial when compared with the conflicts raging elsewhere in the Middle East, whose importance should not be lightly dismissed. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of course a territorial and national conflict, the contest for holy sites has become – especially since the 1967 Six Day War – an increasingly dominant feature, with East Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque being key features of focus.
The Mosque, part of the larger Al-Aqsa sanctuary, is located within the Temple Mount in the Old City immediately adjacent to the Dome of the Rock, a site built in 691 CE which contains the rock from where it is claimed the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven in 620 or 621 CE. As such, it is regarded as the third holiest place in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina. However, Jews claim that it is on this same rock that Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and that beneath it lies King Solomon’s Temple. As such - and despite the collection of Israeli military checkpoints, intrusive highways and settlement policies that have come to characterise the contemporary situation in the West Bank - the shared foundations of this holy site cannot be erased.
At the Camp David Summit in July 2000 the sovereignty of the Al-Aqsa sanctuary was the sole sticking point that prevented then Israeli PM Ehud Barak and his Palestinian counterpart Yasser Arafat from reaching a peace settlement. This was the closest both sides have ever come to resolving the conflict. When Ariel Sharon, at the time campaigning to become the next Israeli PM, paraded past the Mosque in September 2000 accompanied by hundreds of Israeli riot police, this deliberate provocation was the lit match that finally enflamed the grievances that had been building following the failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The ensuing Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, lasted until February 2005 and cost around 3300 Palestinian and 970 Israeli lives.
This background demonstrates why there is so much sentiment and emotion attached to this small piece of real estate and brings us back to the significance of UNESCO’s recent statement. The interference that was the subject of this condemnation ranged from Israeli archaeological excavations of the site – labelled as “intentional destruction” – to provocative tours of the Mosque staged by Israeli right-wing extremists. UNESCO’s statement exclusively referred to the Temple Mount by its Muslim names, totally ignoring its historical Jewish connections, and described Israel as an “occupying power” of the site, although in a revised ruling released on October 26 this reference was dropped.
The reactions by both sides reflect the intractable nature of the conflict. On one hand, it could be argued that the outcry by Israel at the omission of the words Temple Mount in the statement and its inability to acknowledge the two dozen detailed criticisms of its action is representative of Israel’s stubbornness and refusal to move past minor details for the sake of the broader peace process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that UNESCO’s stance was typical of the rising trend of “extreme votes against Israel in international forums”, also implying afterwards that UN institutions typically were biased against Israel, portrays an ‘us against the world’ paradigm that will be unlikely to attract support for Israel’s cause from much of the international community. On the other hand, Palestine’s stance also leaves much to be desired. It is unclear how Palestine’s continued promotion of this agenda at UNESCO could ever be deemed to be productive; its highly provocative nature lacks tact and is bound to engender continued aggrieved Israeli responses and subsequent souring of relations.
The potential importance of interlocutor bodies such as UNESCO for any future prospect of a cessation to Israeli-Palestinian hostilities cannot be overstated. In the current climate, direct dealings between the two counterparts resulting in compromises such as those achieved by the Rabin or Barak administrations are unlikely to occur. As such, neutral entities like UNESCO have a valuable role to play in facilitating and enabling interaction and dialogue between both sides.
Certainly UNESCO and its ilk are no ‘silver bullets’ and there is always the potential for such bodies to be used as a medium through which states can pursue their own unconstructive domestic agendas, as was evidenced by the US withdrawing its funding of UNESCO when Palestine was admitted as a member state in 2011. However, the fact that the revised version of UNESCO’s recent statement on Al Aqsa redacted the reference to Israel as an “occupying power” and removed the tactless use of quotation marks around the phrase “Western Wall” – a Jewish term – although seemingly trivial changes, demonstrate a significant concession on the part of the participating Arab member states. Such displays of compromise – very rarely seen in direct dealings between Israel and Arab states - are a crucial step if there is to be any hope of progress towards a peace between the two sides.
Nick is a recent Honours graduate in International Relations from the University of Sydney and enjoys writing about foreign affairs, rugby and cricket in his spare time.