On 31 October, member states of the United Nations cultural organization (UNESCO) voted to admit Palestine as a full member to the organization. Since 1974, Palestine has held an observer status at UNESCO; in 1988 the PLO was granted the right to participate in debates and circulate information, but was still not allowed to vote on resolutions or other matters.
As the newest member state of UNESCO, Palestine stands as equal to all other member states. Furthermore, admission into UNESCO automatically opens the doors to Palestine to other agencies, including the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon urged Palestine to curb its pursuit for statehood recognition at various UN agencies. In response to the U.S. and Canada pulling its funding from UNESCO upon Palestine’s promotion to a member state, Moon said, seeking recognition by more agencies is “not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody.”
Up until now, it is unclear over which territory the PLO will have purview vis-a-vis UNESCO. While the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, Area A, is slated to be registered as a World Heritage site, it has yet to be seen if the PLO will be able to declare sites in Area C as such. (Area C is under full Israeli military control).
Palestine was admitted to UNESCO with an overwhelming majority: 107 “yes” votes, 14 “no” votes and 52 abstentions, which was more than enough to satisfy the two-thirds majority requirement. While the PLO’s bid for full membership with in the UN is stalled in bureaucracy, UNESCO is the first agency to recognize Palestine as a state.
The admission has been nearly unanimously celebrated across Palestine. Ahmed Yoousef, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas in Gaza, applauded the acceptance as a “great achievement” and suggested it reflected a significant change in world politics, “[The vote] shows that Israel and America are not dictating politics to the world anymore.”
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, the secretary general of the Palestinians National Initiative, said “This is a great achievement for the Palestinian people and we will seek membership in every agency in the UN.”
Continuing, Dr. Barghouthi said, “This is the best act in the non-violent, diplomatic process and it is our only response to the Israeli destruction of the peace process.”
Leading voices of opposition to Palestine’s admissions, the U.S. and Israel, have decried UNESCO’s move.
Israeli representative to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan described the vote as “traffic for the idea of UNESCO.”
Israel has announced that it will continue illegal settlement building and withhold Palestinian tax revenue in response to the UNESCO vote.
The US’ withdrawal of its funding is based on a congressional law passed in 1991 in response to the Madrid Conference. That law states, “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
While the law is protected from a presidential waiver, Victoria Nuland, spokesperson from the US state department, unequivocally affirmed the decision. “Today’s vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Speaking on Democracy Now! Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies said, “There is nothing here that undermines the possibility of any sort of legitimate peace process. What it undermines is the illusion, the false illusion, that the U.S. backed so-called peace process of 20 years is somehow moving toward the possibility of a just, lasting and permanent solution to the conflict.”
Barghouthi pointed out that the vote indicates that the majority of the world is with Palestinian rights and independence. “What we need now is a combination of non-violent resistance on the ground with diplomatic actions internationally and we see that all Palestine will support that.”