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The United Nations and Israel

Israel Puts Off UNESCO
Temple Mount Inspection Visit

By Etgar Lefkovits
April, 20 2001

JERUSALEM - A planned visit by a special envoy of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to investigate reports of Islamic Wakf construction work on the Temple Mount has been indefinitely postponed just three weeks before it was to start, the Foreign Ministry and UNESCO officials said yesterday.

On Wednesday, UNESCO officials in Paris received a letter from Ambassador to UNESCO Arye Gabai informing the UN body that, "due to the prevailing situation in the region, the mission would be postponed," Mounir Bouchenaki, the assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, said yesterday. No future date was set.

Gabai's letter came just three weeks after an earlier letter he had sent, informing UNESCO of Israel's readiness to host such a mission.

Following the initial acceptance of the mission, the envoy, Prof. Oleg Grabar of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, had said he expected to make the trip in the second week in May.

"The mission was set, the dates were fixed," Bouchenaki said, expressing his disappointment at the indefinite postponement and surprise over the on-again, off-again mission. "We will now wait for a better climate for this mission."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, declined to comment and referred all queries on the issue to the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari said that during the contacts Israel held with UNESCO on the issue, "it was agreed to postpone the envoy's arrival to a future unspecified date."

But sources in Jerusalem said the whole idea of involving UNESCO in the reported construction work that the Wakf is carrying out on the Temple Mount "was a misunderstanding."

The idea was first raised publicly last month at a meeting of the Knesset Educational Committee which dealt with the issue. One of the primary proponents of involving UNESCO was MK Collete Avital, who has served in both New York and Paris in her diplomatic career.

But UNESCO'S involvement in Judaism's holiest site was seen by many other senior political officials as unwise, especially in light of the past history of the group, and Israeli reaction to the planned trip was tepid at best.

For years, UNESCO has been sending envoys to Jerusalem to report on the status of archeological excavations, reports which were often highly critical of digs in a city which the UN body does not consider to be under Israeli sovereignty.

The last such UNESCO mission was in 1998, and ended in rancor after Sorbonne Prof. Leon Pressouyre came and left Jerusalem without meeting any Israeli officials.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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