Relations between Israel and UNESCO have reached a new low following the organization's inauguration of a chair in astronomy, astrophysics and space sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), which Israel identifies with Hamas.
The inauguration, by UNESCO's Secretary-General Irina Bokova, was made possible after the organization accepted Palestine as its 195th member several months ago.
Palestine's acceptance caused western nations, including Canada and the United States, to cut off funding to the agency.
A day after holding heated discussions with UNESCO officials on July 11, Israeli ambassador to the agency, Nimrod Barkan, submitted a formal letter of protest, together with information about the Gaza university’s reported ties with Hamas.
A senior Foreign Ministry source said the Israeli delegation to UNESCO received a press release from the organization earlier this week saying UNESCO was sponsoring a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza. The chair is seen as a stamp of approval from the international body, implying recognition in the university's importance as an academic institution.
The move angered Jerusalem, especially because the university has served for years as a political hub for Hamas support. Israeli officials said numerous Hamas engineers have been trained at the university to manufacture explosive charges and rockets.
During Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2008-2009, the Israel Air Force bombed one of the university's wings, in which Israel said laboratories for rocket and bomb production were located.
Israel was especially furious that UNESCO chose to co-operate with the IUG, rather than other universities in the Palestinian Authority, such as Al-Quds or Birzeit.
Foreign Ministry officials see UNESCO's Bokova as fully responsible for this development, and said the co-operation with IUG is part of her campaign to be elected for a second term in 2013.
“Bokova wants to be elected at any price," a senior foreign ministry official said. “Third world states have a majority in UNESCO so she's fawning on the Arabs to ensure her re-election. It's another sign of the growing politicization of a UN agency that is supposed to deal with culture, education and science," he said.
Barkan spoke to officials responsible for the Middle East in UNESCO's secretariat on July 11. “This is an institution that assists terror and has been involved in terror in the past,” he said.
"This decision is a combination of irresponsibility and lack of judgment,” a senior foreign ministry official said. “Before UNESCO gave a chair to the Technion and the Interdisciplinary Center [institutions in Haifa and Herzliya, respectively] they checked things with a magnifying glass. In Gaza no one checked.”
A senior foreign ministry source said Bokova is now pushing for U.S. President Barack Obama to sign an order to resume UNESCO funding, bypassing Congress legislation.
The legislation was enacted after Palestine was accepted as a full UNESCO member. The United States, which had financed about a quarter of UNESCO's budget, immediately cut off funding to the agency.
Canada also expressed regret over the move by UNESCO.
Rick Roth, press secretary to foreign affairs minister John Baird, told The CJN the UN body’s decision showed terrible judgment and encapsulated why Ottawa chose to freeze all voluntary funding to the organization last year.
“We are deeply disappointed that UNESCO would lend legitimacy to a facility with a demonstrated history of extremism and violence,” he said.
“Israel has the right to live in peace and security. Any institution that holds beliefs counter to that should not be endorsed by a UN body.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) also lambasted UNESCO for its decision.
David Koschitzky, chair of CIJA, termed the situation “shameful.”
In a statement, he said the UN was once again allowing its agencies “to be abused by extremists.
“Whether it’s at UNESCO or the Human Rights Council, the UN regularly offers a stamp of international credibility to the likes of Hamas, Syria, and Iran. It’s especially outrageous that UNESCO would partner with an institution that is a known training centre, weapons depot, and ideological beacon for Hamas – which itself is one of the greatest obstacles to peace and the two-state solution.”
With files from Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf