A United Nations vote on one of the world's most important religious sites has sparked international debate over the future of Jerusalem. The director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), issued a statement Friday assuring the Jewish identity of the site known as Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and Temple Mount by Jews after members voted Thursday to approve a draft resolution that was critical of Israel and only referred to the site's Islamic name.
“The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible," Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said. "And each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city."
Israel suspended cooperation with the U.N. cultural organization Friday in reaction to the vote on Judaism's holiest site. The text refers to the Muslim site Al-Buraq Plaza, but places the Jewish name, The Western Wall, in quotations. The wall a remnant of the first biblical temple, is the holiest site where Jews can pray, while for Muslims, the temple marks the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended up to heaven. The site is officially under Muslim administration and under Israeli law, Jews are not allowed to pray there to avoid potential violence. But activists have increasingly pushed for the right to go inside the temple in recent months, prompting Palestinians and Muslim-majority nations such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to complain that Israel is trying to take back the site.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip and is pledged to Israel's destruction, called the resolution a "step in the right direction." Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet called the decision "shameful," while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the vote as "the theater of the absurd."
"What's next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?" Netanyahu tweeted after the decision.
Out of the 57 nations present for Thursday's vote, only six voted against the resolution. Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and the United States took issue with the draft, while a number of Arab and Muslim-majority countries joined Brazil, China and Russia to secure 24 votes in favor. Other member states, such as India, Italy and Spain, abstained. Serbia and Turkmenistan were absent.
The votes by Arab world countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, which sponsored the bill, are not surprising. Only Egypt and Jordan have established diplomatic relations with Israel. Jordan has custodian rights over the site after Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.
A number of other nations have been critical of Israel in recent years, voicing support for Palestinian statehood. Roughly 130 countries recognize Palestine. In 2011, Iceland became the first Western European country to recognize Palestine, followed by Sweden in 2012. That same year, a number of European nations, including France, Italy, and Switzerland, joined the successful vote to include Palestine as non-member observer state at the U.N. In 2014, the parliament of the European Union voted to recognize Palestinian statehood. This growing list of supporters has angered Netanyahu, who routinely criticizes nations that pursue Palestinian recognition.
While no European country voted for Thursday's draft resolution, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm to block it as well. On the abstaining list, countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain have symbolically recognized Palestine in their respective legislating bodies.
Israel can claim a few diplomatic victories, however. A draft resolution similar to Friday's was previously voted on in April, with the same text that Israel finds problematic. That vote saw 33 members including France voting in favor, after which Netanyahu personally wrote to French Prime Minister Francois Hollande, saying he was "honestly astounded to see our French friends raise their hands in favor of this shameful resolution.” France abstained Thursday.