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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ahead of UNESCO Meeting, Archaeologists Demand Protection for Mamilla Cemetery

24.10.11 - 20:41

Days before the beginning of the 36th session of UNESCO—the body expected to approve Palestinian membership and grant protection to Palestinian heritage sites—a group of 84 international archaeologists signed a petition calling Israel to stop building the planned Museum of Tolerance on the site of the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock is slated to be a Palestinian UNESCO World Heritage Site, if Palestine is granted membership (Brendan Work, PNN).

Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the archeologists’ petition was sent on October 20 to the Jerusalem municipality, the Israeli Department of Antiquities, and the Wiesenthal Center—a major American funder of the project—asking to halt work on the museum.

"The bulldozing of historic cemeteries is the ultimate act of territorial aggrandizement: the erasure of prior residents. Desecration of Jerusalem's Mamilla cemetery is a continuing cultural and historical tragedy," said Yale University Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology Harvey Weiss, a signatory to the petition.

The archeologists also said they would also go to UNESCO and the Human Rights Council to intervene and demand Israeli not build the museum over the cemetery. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is due to vote to upgrade Palestine’s status with the organization from an observer to a member state sometime between today and November 10.

The general conference vote will follow an initial vote of the UNESCO Executive Board in which 40 nations voted in favor of taking the issue of Palestine’s membership status to the General Assembly. Only four nations at the Executive Board voted against the proposal – the United States, Germany, Latvia and Romania. The remaining 14 nations, including Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, abstained from voting.
If admitted to UNESCO as a member state, Palestinian officials would be able seek UNESCO protection of significant cultural sites within its territories. As well as seeking protection for sites in places such as Jericho and Bethlehem, Palestinian officials could also use UNESCO membership to seek protection for endangered sites within East Jerusalem. Whether this list could include the Mamilla Cemetery, which includes significant pre-Islamic tombs and was declared a “historic site” by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1927.
If the vote to include Palestine as a full member is successful, UNESCO may suffer severe funding cuts. The United States currently provides up to 22% of UNESCO’s funding. But under existing US legislation, the country cannot provide funding to any UN body that grants full membership to any group that “does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” The USA previously withdrew funding from UNESCO from 1984 – 2003 after disputes over mismanagement and politics, but since rejoining under George W. Bush, the USA has forged strong ties with the organization and provided strong praise for its programs. If the USA were to withdraw funding, it could maintain its UNESCO membership for two years. However both its influence, and the ability of UNESCO to implement its programs would be severely undermined.

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