JERUSALEM (JTA) – The head of the United Nations cultural agency said she “deplores” a proposal under discussion by the agency’s executive board that would declare the Western Wall a Muslim holy site.
Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, called on the board to “take decisions that do not further inflame tensions on the ground and that encourage respect for the sanctity of the Holy Sites.”
“The protection of cultural heritage should not be taken hostage, as this undermines UNESCO’s mandate and efforts,” she said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“We all have responsibility to UNESCO’s mandate, to take decisions that promote dialogue, tolerance and peace,” she said. “This is especially important for young people, who should be nurtured and educated for peace.”
The executive board, which is holding its 197th session, could vote on the proposal on Tuesday or Wednesday, according to reports.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it is working with friendly countries and UNESCO officials to defeat the proposal.
“This is a clear endeavor to distort history, in order to erase the connection between the Jewish people and its holiest site, and to create a false reality,” the ministry said.
Six Muslim Arab countries – Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates – submitted the proposal on behalf of the Palestinians. The proposal refers to Jerusalem as “the occupied capital of Palestine,” according to Ynet. It also blames Israel for the recent escalation of violence and seeks to confirm an earlier UNESCO decision that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, two West Bank sites holy to both Jews and Muslims, are part of a Palestinian state.
The Old City of Jerusalem and its walls are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Since 1982 they have appeared on the list of World Heritage in Danger sites.
A listing on the World Heritage List makes a site eligible for UNESCO assistance and encourages other organizations and individuals to preserve the site. Listing the Western Wall as a Palestinian site as opposed to an Israeli one could detract from efforts to preserve it as Jewish.
The Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, is believed to be one of the few remnants of the retaining wall of the ancient Temple, which the Romans destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago. A venue for Jewish prayer services and individual Jewish prayer, the Wall is a stop on most tours of Israel.
It is adjacent to the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. The current wave of violence in Israel was sparked by and continues over rumors that Israel plans to take over the site and change the status quo under which Jews are allowed to visit the site during specific hours but are not allowed to pray there.