UNESCO condemns Israel for limits on al-Aqsa mosque access

PARIS (Reuters) - The United Nations cultural heritage body UNESCO condemned Israel on Wednesday for limiting Muslim access to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, a flashpoint in a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Israeli police officers take positions on the roof of al-Aqsa mosque during clashes with Palestinians in Jerusalem's Old City September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The resolution approved by UNESCO’s executive board dropped a controversial clause from the original draft that laid claim to Jerusalem’s Western Wall - the holiest site where Jews can pray - as a space reserved for Muslims, Israeli diplomats said.

That clause, proposed by several Muslim states, would have declared the Wall an integral part of the al-Aqsa mosque compound - a potential first step to banning Jews from approaching the site where they pray and slip written prayers into the wall’s cracks.

The raised and walled esplanade is sacred to both faiths. Jews call it the Temple Mount, site of two destroyed biblical temples. Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif and list its al-Aqsa mosque as holiest Islamic building outside Saudi Arabia.

Jewish groups worldwide and the Israeli government mounted a last-minute campaign against the resolution, and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova disowned it as dangerous amid Palestinian protests against alleged Israeli encroachment on the compound.

In its place, the resolution adopted on Wednesday said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation condemned restrictions of freedom of worship at the al-Aqsa mosque and reiterated other complaints about Israeli management of disputed holy sites.

UNESCO did not immediately provide a copy of the resolution adopted following protracted negotiations but Palestinian and Israeli diplomats gave matching accounts to reporters.

The news from UNESCO coincided with international endeavors to calm violence in which at least 42 Palestinians and eight Israelis have died. The turmoil was triggered in part by what Palestinians say are increasingly frequent Jewish visits to the compound that is officially under Muslim administration.

The resolution passed with 26 votes for and six against, including the United States, Britain and Germany against. There were 25 abstentions including France, diplomats said.

The clause on the Western Wall was abandoned under “huge pressure from the Americans,” Israel’s Interior Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters in Paris. He criticized the text that was passed and said UNESCO was “very hostile” towards Israel.

Jerusalem’s old city and walls are on a list of world heritage sites whose protection is entrusted to UNESCO.

Israel regards all Jerusalem, including the predominantly Arab east captured and annexed in 1967, as its “indivisible capital” This claim is not recognized internationally.

Palestinians want the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a future state, with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.

The UNESCO text, diplomats said, also reaffirmed that two holy sites in the West Bank, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, “are an integral part of Palestine”.

The Palestinians won full membership of UNESCO in October 2011 in what was seen a major step forward for their efforts to achieve recognition as an independent state, despite intense opposition from both the Israeli government and Washington.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Tom Heneghan