Palestine’s UNESCO membership

Peter Schaefer

On its way towards full UN membership, Palestine’s leader Mahmoud Abbas took the opportunity and bid for membership at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris. The member states voted with 107 in support of the membership and with 14 against it. Fifty-two member states abstained. While France supported the membership, the United States and Germany voted against it.

Palestine’s Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, against the concerns of those who voted against the membership, pointed out that the Palestinian membership in the UNESCO has its own value – aside from the bid for full membership at the UN. “Palestine is multi-faceted, we are not only talking about people being under occupation; we are talking about comprehensive occupation. Occupation also means cultural, political, economical and social occupation – it affects all facets of life. When we try to join UNESCO, we try to cover an important dimension where occupation tried to change realities”, he said.

As aniticipated, politicians from the U.S. and Israel reacted with protest. White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “Today’s vote at UNESCO to admit the Palestinian Authority as a member is premature and undermines the international community’s shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”Of course, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Palestinian move as well: “Unfortunately, the Palestinians continue to refuse to negotiate with us. Instead of sitting around the negotiating table, they have decided to form an alliance with Hamas and take unilateral steps at the UN, including today.”

However, the two most crucial effects of the Palestinian membership are of a different type than just words. TheUNESCO fundingwill be cut by the U.S. and Israel,and the Jewish settlement activities will increase in Palestine.These developments were announced imminently after Palestine was granted membership in UNESCO, almost as a means of response to the membership. Israel is said to speed up the construction of about 2,000 new homes – all in the areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even though settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank areillegal under international law.

The United States reacted with a financial penalty against the organisation. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nudland said at the daily news briefing: “We were to have made a 60‑million‑dollar payment to UNESCO in November and we will not be making that payment.” Israel announced to freeze its UNESCO funding as well.The funding of the U.S. and Israel together is about a quarter of the entire UNESCO’s budget. This means a massive cut for the Organisation, which is now facing a serious and concerning financial crisis. “Punishing the UNESCO for this harmless and legal act is beyond comprehension”, Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, said.

Moreover, the Israeli government promised to halve the transfer of tax revenues which it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA). A decision whether there will be a full freeze of this money is expected soon. The full amount of money will be about £630m a year in VAT and customs revenues, which Israel is supposed to pass on to the PA.

The membership of Palestine in theUNESCO does not make things easier. Especially not for the United States, whose administration was put in an incomprehensive position.This has happened because of the U.S.’s commitment tothe organisation seemed to be stronger only a little while ago. On a visit at the UNESCO earlier this year, Hillary Clinton announced: “I am proud to be the first secretary of state from the United States ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I believe strongly in your mission.” This example can be generalized to describe the problem of the U.S.’ involvement in this issue: there is a general lack of principle.

The US provides at least $2 million daily to Israel; and since Palestine is now a member of UNESCO, it cannot be seen to be funding both sides of a long-standing conflict. So overall, Palestine’s membership in UNESCO seems to amount to little, and it could be argued that it has made the situation worse. Perhaps this was intentional on Israel and the US’ part; as a warning of the consequences to Palestine and other countries if Palestine obtains recognition for full statehood in the United Nations.

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