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UNESCO could boost Palestinian cultural presence in Jerusalem

Nov. 19, 2011 4:29 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 29, 2011 9:30 P.M.)
By: Andreas Hackl
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- UNESCO could help restore the Palestinian Authority's cultural presence in Jerusalem, the president of the Palestinian Committee for Education Culture and Science, Yahya Yakhlaf, said last week in Ramallah.

But Yakhlaf, who used to be Minister of Culture and is a well known Palestinian novelist, stressed that Palestinian ambitions within UNESCO would remain merely cultural. "But we can achieve political goals through cultural means," he added.

While the Palestinian application for full UN-membership is likely to fail due to a lack of support in the Security Council, the successful admission to UNESCO boosted the PA's efforts for international recognition.

Israeli media has reported that the PA had agreed to freeze its ambitions in the UN if Israel and the US would resume paying their funds, but senior Palestinian officials denied that such an agreement has been made.

But it seems almost certain that Palestinian efforts within UNESCO are likely to continue and intensify.

"In the next months we will register more than 20 Palestinian sites as our national heritage," Ismail Tellawi, secretary general of the Palestinian UNESCO-Commission, said in his Ramallah office.

One of the sites Palestinians will try to register is the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is believed to be buried.

Holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, Palestinian efforts to register the mosque as a national heritage site is likely to cause conflict with Israel and international controversy, despite the fact that a UNESCO vote in October had declared it "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territory."

Ismail Tellawi cheered the newly gained membership and expressed specific thanks to countries such as France and Austria, who voted for Palestine in UNESCO.

"We were very surprised from this positive outcome," he said with a proud smile. The Palestinian Ministry for Tourism is currently producing the final list of all heritage sites, which are expected to be made public in two or three months, Tellawi added.

UNESCO could also play a role in the PA’s efforts to restore its influence in Jerusalem, where it has been banned from operating since the second intifada.

Although Palestinians have no intention to register any Jerusalem holy sites with UNESCO, because the Old City was already declared a World Heritage Site in 1981 at the insistence of Jordan, the UN-body could serve as an indirect channel for increasing Palestinian cultural presence in East Jerusalem.

While Yakhlaf said that the Palestinians are not seeking political confrontation with Israel, he also talked about the possibility of drafting a resolution that would condemn Israel for preventing the PA from protecting its cultural heritage in Jerusalem.

"We do wish to see our proposals for Jerusalem implemented under the umbrella of UNESCO," he added.

Recently, a festival called "Jerusalem Underground" highlighted the absence of Palestinian cultural opportunities in the city. Because official celebrations were often banned, the art shows took place in private houses.

Israeli authorities had previously banned a festival in Jerusalem in 2009, which aimed to celebrate the city as an "Arab Cultural Capital."

In this respect, UNESCO membership could bring Palestinians closer to a real cultural presence in East Jerusalem, if it can implement projects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
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