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Palestinian delegation prepares for UNESCO vote

Oct. 24, 2011 9:40 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 26, 2011 11:14 P.M.)
CAIRO (Ma'an) -- Palestinian officials are preparing for an intense diplomatic battle as UNESCO opens its General Conference on Tuesday.

UNESCO's board decided on Oct. 5 to let 193 member states vote on a Palestinian application to upgrade from observer status to full membership of the cultural body.

The vote is expected to take place during the two-week general assembly meeting which opens Tuesday in Paris.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged the governing body of UNESCO "to think again before proceeding with that vote" and said the US might cut off funding to the agency if it admitted Palestine. The US pays 22 percent of UNESCO's dues.

Palestinian sources involved in the bid told Ma'an that UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova flew to Washington shortly after the board issued its decision to allow a vote and returned convinced that the US would see through its threats to withdraw funding.

The sources said it was possible that Palestine would win the two-thirds majority needed to secure membership, but that consultations were underway to find a compromise and avoid a split among members which could paralyze UNESCO's work.

One possibility discussed was to grant Palestine full membership, but on the condition that it would not come into effect for six to nine months, once Palestine's bid to join the UN has been decided and to allow time for negotiations with Israel.

The proposal could persuade European nations not to oppose the Palestinian application, officials said.

Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Khloud Daibes on Monday defended Palestine's right to join UNESCO, telling Reuters, "The question is not if the Palestinian has the right but why the Palestinians until now are not a member of this international organization?"

She said that after gaining full UNESCO membership, the PA would revive its bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus. The nomination was rejected this year because Palestine was not a full UNESCO member.

Bethlehem resident Hisham Khimaees said he hoped membership of UNESCO would help to increase local income from tourism.

"First thing it means to me as a resident that the importance of Bethlehem city will internationally increase. Also the tourists will come more to Bethlehem and this is good for the city of Bethlehem and its residents and will increase the national income of Bethlehem," Khimaees said.

UNESCO is the first UN agency to which Palestinians have applied for full membership since President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a request to become a member state of the United Nations on September 23, also in the face of stiff US opposition.

Washington says negotiations with Israel are the only way for the Palestinians to achieve statehood.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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