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Plenary session (II) of the International Conference on the question of Jerusalem - “Preserving the cultural and religious character of Jerusalem”

Press Release
Convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) in partnership with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation


NAZMI AL-JUBEH, Associate Professor of History and Archaeology, Birzeit University, speaking about the protection of cultural sites under occupation, expressed a warm welcome to the participating civil society organizations from Israel and thanked them for their efforts despite the threats they were receiving from Israeli authorities. The question of cultural heritage continued to confront Israeli society. Since 1967, aggression against Palestinian cultural heritage had continued and taken many forms, among them diggings and excavations, which were harming complex archaeological sites. The worst was the secrecy around those activities, since nothing was published. For example, there was a massive dig ongoing under the Old City but nothing was known about it. An international committee was set up to monitor digs and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had established rules and regulations, but UNESCO was not allowed to work in Jerusalem.

Some places had been destroyed, allowing for the history of the City to be completely rewritten. Railroads and cable cars were planned over the walls of the City, and old buildings were destroyed. There was a systematic determination to alter the Old City, which used to look like a traditional Arab town. It was now modified systematically and even inhabitants were starting to feel like foreigners, surrounded with surveillance cameras, and soldiers were becoming part of the cultural landscape. In addition, there was a huge housing crisis and 80 per cent of Palestinian Jerusalemites lived below the poverty threshold. They used to be middle class but had to endure dramatic changes in their situation. Yet, despite this complex, challenging situation Palestinian residents continued to fight and preserve the cultural history of their City, restoring around 4,000 different architectural monuments.

YUDITH OPPENHEIMER, Executive Director, Ir Amim, speaking about Israeli settlement policy in the Old City and its environs, said that any political settlement would have to acknowledge that the Old City, comprising the heart of historic East Jerusalem, was a birthplace for three monotheistic religions. A permanent political status on the Old City had to be part of a comprehensive deal between two parties, Israel and Palestine. Currently, the formal removal of one third of Palestinian residents from the City’s jurisdiction was taking place. After 50 years of Israel control, there were 340,000 Palestinians, 100,000 of whom lived in the Old City and its vicinity, accounting for 40 per cent of the Old City’s population. Israel was consolidating its control of the Old City. However, population density limited Israel’s success to major residential areas as a means to altering demographic character. Palestinian neighbourhoods were encroached and split into parts, making it easier to then police enclaves. Instead of safeguarding historical importance, the settlement project eroded Palestinian presence.

Ms. Oppenheimer presented the cases of Palestinian communities currently undergoing settlement initiatives, resulting in large scale displacement. Settlement initiatives were not individual attempts but rather the result of a unified strategy to weaken Palestinian presence and their rights. Currently, the case of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah was in the Israeli courts; since the Israeli settler side was very well funded, this area was now in more danger than the well-known case of Khan al-Ahmar, and in urgent need of support. It was the duty of the international community to safeguard multicultural character of Jerusalem, as a present home of two people and centre of three world religions.

WASFI KAILANI, Director of the Royal Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al-Aqsa, speaking about restoration of Islamic cultural sites and the Hashemite custodianship in Jerusalem, outlined how from 1917 through the present day, the Hashemite Kings’ Custodianship of Jerusalem holy sites contributed to the preservation of the authentic cultural character of Jerusalem. He elaborated on major commitments and endeavours, focusing on five restorations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and gilding of the Dome of the Rock. Modern frameworks for Jordanian role were laid out, including the Washington Declaration of 1993, the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994 and the Holy Sites Agreement. Jordan’s role in the safeguarding of Jerusalem heritage at UNESCO was highlighted.

Mr. Kailani specified that although Israeli violations had started to enjoy the support of certain countries, both the United Nations and the UNESCO had to continue to represent justice and preservation of the City’s authentic identity.

SHADIA TOUQAN, Director of the Arab Regional Center for World Heritage, speaking about the UNESCO action plan on Jerusalem, reminded about importance of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which Israel continued to ignore. The Hague Convention was the reference for such cases when cultural heritage was under occupation. Since 1972, there was a Special Representative of the Director-General of the United Nations and UNESCO to Jerusalem to inspect and examine the conservation of Jerusalem. This was normal – once a site was inscribed on the World Heritage List, it belonged to humanity. Because of occupation and the lack of access to Jerusalem, initially UNESCO would obtain a special permit from the Israeli authorities, and it always urged authorities to stop their excavations. Since 1997, Israel did not allow any representative from the United Nations and UNESCO to enter and examine the situation.

What Israel was doing in Jerusalem amounted to crimes against humanity. Life in the Old City felt like a slow death. Palestinian parents did not know if their children would be allowed to go to school the next day. People were not allowed to go to museums. There were heroic attempts made to keep the City living and to continue preserving its heritage. Before 2000, there were contractors coming from Hebron and rural areas around Jerusalem, to implement projects but this was no longer possible. Currently a number of non-governmental organizations were working, despite all difficulties. Against this background, there question was: Where was the international law? Who had the right to call Jerusalem a capital of one State and not another? Anywhere else, the imposed changes – from unilateral digs to cable cars – would have been condemned, why not in Jerusalem? Who owned cultural heritage?


OMAR ZNIBER, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva, informed that his country took a deep interest in the question of Palestine, since it was at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict. The establishment of a lasting peace, based on the two-States solution remained a just solution, viewed favourably by Morocco. Jerusalem had been a symbol of peaceful coexistence, yet unilateral Israeli measures had led to serious damage of the historical aspect of Jerusalem. Morocco was convinced that Jerusalem was one of the main points of disagreements behind the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was important to preserve freedom of access to holy places of all three religions. Morocco decided to make a grant for the renovation of certain parts of Al-Aqsa Mosque, thus contributing to efforts of the Palestinian people to preserve their cultural heritage and to preserve the religious heritage of the City. In 2018, the Jerusalem Fund prepared over 80 projects to support and preserve Palestinian patrimony.

In the ensuing discussion, the question was raised whether the experts had adequate information, taking into account the ban of organizations to travel to Jerusalem. Clarification was also sought on what was considered under the slogan “free access for three religions”. Questions were raised on excavations: Was there any justification for excavations carried out today? What was the extent of damage caused? The point was raised whether, since Israel was a rare country that managed to get away with violations, was it even realistic to speak of cultural heritage without political settlement? What measures could be taken and what institutions should be responsible for monitoring further what was happening in Jerusalem, if UNESCO was denied access?

Ms. Touqan informed that there were efforts to document actions in Israel and courageous organizations monitored the situation on the ground. In today’s world, through social media networks communication was becoming easier. It would be extremely important that the United Nations delegate a group of countries to exercise oversight. It was difficult for UNESCO to have that access, and in the last 30 years, they had not able to send a single mission to Jerusalem on the issue of cultural heritage. Regarding excavations, the question was who held patrimony, as the whole excavation was done for a quest for patrimony. Jerusalem was not a lone case – several historic Palestinian cities in the region had been targeted as well.

Referring to the protection of cultural sites under occupation, Mr. Al-Jubeh said that there was an annual report presented by archaeological experts on Jerusalem. It carefully documented excavations, so the problem was not the lack of documentation, but rather the question how to create a political tool out of this information and ensure leverage with occupying power. The core question was thus how to use the available data. As for differentiating between cultural heritage and political settlement, this was not possible. One could not preserve cultural heritage without political tools. On the other hand, Palestinians were not waiting for the end of colonial rule to preserve their cultural heritage.

Answering the question on the meaning of “free access for three religions”, Ms. Oppenheimer highlighted that it had been Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who had coined the clearest agreeable definition when, in respect to Al-Haram al-Sharif, he said “Muslims have praying rights, everyone else has visiting rights.”

Mr. Kailani added that it had been important to establish mechanisms and organizations in Jerusalem to prepare reports on conditions in the City. Currently there were around 250 reports published and others were in preparation. As for the link with patrimony and politics, patrimony and politics had to be disconnected. Palestinian President Abbas had supported efforts of Hashemite Kings’ Custodianship of Jerusalem Holy Sites, as the situation in Jerusalem was different from other situations in the world.