Israel suspends cooperation with UNESCO over tomb dispute



Israel suspends cooperation with UNESCO over tomb dispute Jerusalem: Israel suspended cooperation with UNESCO on Thursday to protest at the cultural organisation's description of the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, as a mosque.

"Israel has suspended cooperation with UNESCO," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told parliament, according to a statement from his office.

The move comes after the United Nations cultural organisation on October 21 adopted a series of decisions concerning the Palestinian territories, including one on what it called "Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem," a formula rejected by Israel.

Ayalon said ties with UNESCO would remain frozen until it repealed the decision describing the tomb as a mosque, a definition Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described as "absurd."

"The UNESCO decision was made by the automatic Arab majority and was another attempt to delegitimise Israel instigated by the Palestinian Authority," the statement said.

"Decisions like these push peace further away and harm the reputation of UNESCO, which has become a rubber stamp for the Palestinian Authority," the statement said.

There was no immediate reaction from UNESCO.

The site, where according to tradition the biblical matriarch Rachel is buried, is the third holiest in Judaism, but also considered a holy place for Muslims. According to tradition, women who have difficulty conceiving pray at the tomb for children.

The tomb is in an enclave controlled by the Israeli military on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

Rachel's Tomb, together with the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, were at the centre of controversy earlier in the year when Israel included them in a national heritage restoration plan.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova Bokova endorsed a statement by Robert Serry, UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, that the sites have "historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam and to Christianity."

She also "expressed her concern" at the heritage plan and the "resulting escalation of tension in the area."

Israel defended the decision at the time, saying the plan involved only restoration work and promising there would be no attempt to change the delicate status quo at these sites.

Ayalon's call for a boycott followed an angry statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, condemning UNESCO's ruling on the tomb, which Muslims call the al-Ibrahimi Mosque.

"The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd," the statement said.

"If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?," it said.

PTI