On May 2, UNESCO passed a resolution on the Old City of Al-Quds’ state of conservation. The resolution declared Israel’s sovereignty over Al-Quds “null and void.” This is considered an unprecedented resolution by the U.N. cultural body, as it explicitly criticizes Israel’s historic violations of the religious sites of Al-Quds. What is also remarkable is that the resolution refers to the sites of Al-Quds by their Arabic names. The resolution calls for religious sites – including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is being threatened and violated by the Israelis – to be respected.It is not a coincidence that UNESCO voted for this resolution on the occasion of the so-called “Independence Day of Israel,” criticizing the threat that Israeli policies pose to the religious sites of Al-Quds city. If we conduct a historical chronological analysis of the main U.N. resolutions recognizing Palestine as a state, we stop at the UNESCO vote to admit Palestine to full membership status on Oct. 31, 2011. This was followed by the U.N. General Assembly vote to recognize Palestine as a “nonmember observer state” in the U.N. on Nov. 29, 2012. Next came the resolution related to raising the flags of nonmember observer states at the U.N., which enabled the Palestinian flag to fly at the United Nations headquarters, on Sept. 10, 2016.
Today, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, before leaving her post, is crowning her term at UNESCO with a resolution explicitly denouncing the threat of Israeli occupation to forcefully transform the character and status of the holy city of Al-Quds, and considering Israel’s excavations and blockade of the Gaza Strip to be violations of international law.
In a different case previously, the U.N. General Assembly took a similar approach. On May 28, 2015, it unanimously adopted a resolution on “Saving the cultural heritage of Iraq.” Bokova declared in the plenary meeting of the U.N. General Assembly that “the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime – it is used as a tactic of war, in a strategy of cultural cleansing that calls on us to review and renew the means by which we wish to respond and to defeat violent extremism.” Such resolutions related to the preservation and protection of cultural heritage all over the world are considered a turning point in international diplomacy toward violations of cultural heritage.
The danger of heritage excavations in Iraq and Palestine is the same despite the difference in its purpose, i.e., in Iraq it’s being used as a war tactic whereas in Palestine it is being used as a wider occupational tactic to obliterate an entire identity.
The series of resolutions that are enacted across time, amid the heated debates on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will write a new chapter in this historical conflict that is unpredictable.
However, what is quite obvious is that we are entering a new chapter of international diplomacy that includes culture and heritage in the geopolitical and legal calculations of conflict settlement. This is a major step forward that will definitely require enforcement mechanisms and wider social awareness.
Hiba Huneini is acting manager of the Youth and Civic Engagement Program at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.