Israel suspends ties with UNESCO in dispute over Jerusalem holy site

Israel has suspended ties with UNESCO, the UN body in charge of preserving culture and history, after a draft decision that Israel says ignores Judaism's ties to the religion's holiest site, reports CNN.

The draft decision notes the importance of Jerusalem to all three monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - but makes no mention of why the city is significant to Christians or Jews. A subsidiary body of UNESCO's Executive Board passed the resolution Thursday in Paris.

It refers to Jerusalem's holiest site - known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary - only by its Muslim name.

The draft decision, which largely criticizes Israel's actions in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, was proposed by a group of Arab countries and drew harsh rebukes from Israel and the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the move as absurd, saying: "To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids. By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it has left."

In a letter from Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett following the vote, Israel announced it will freeze all professional activities with UNESCO.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner also criticized the decision. 

The United States stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 over the organization's acceptance of a Palestinian bid for full membership. Washington had contributed $80 million a year to the organization before then.

In April, UNESCO passed a similar decision that Israel and other countries also harshly criticized.

This week's resolution, put forward by Arab countries including Egypt, Algeria and Qatar, was adopted by a 24-6 vote, with 26 abstentions.

To Jews and Christians, the Temple Mount is the site of the foundation stone on which Adam was created and the site where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac. To Jews, it is also the site of the First and Second Temples. To Muslims, it is the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his miraculous "night journey."

Responding to Israel's criticism in a statement, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova suggested she wasn't pleased with the decision.

Bennett, the Israeli education minister, welcomed Bokova's statement but said it wasn't enough, calling on UNESCO to cancel the decision. "Words are important, but they are not a replacement to the actions of the organization she heads."

The draft decision will go before a full plenary of the UNESCO Executive Board on Tuesday. It will either be adopted unanimously, or be the subject of further debate and a possible vote.
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