Palestine Granted Full UNESCO Membership in Divisive Vote

Posted October 31st, 2011 at 9:00 am (UTC-5)
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The United Nations cultural agency has admitted Palestine as a full member.

Monday’s vote by the Paris-based UNESCO is boosts the Palestinian bid for international recognition as an independent state.

UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have sought to join since President Mahmoud Abbas applied last month for full recognition of Palestinian statehood by the U.N. General Assembly.

A two-thirds vote by the 193 members of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was needed for membership.

But Palestinian success in Paris could be costly for UNESCO. U.S. law prohibits Washington from funding any U.N.-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian membership. The U.S. currently is UNESCO’s biggest funding source by far, supplying 22 percent of the agency’s budget.

The Palestinian bid triggered a frantic lobbying effort by American diplomats asking UNESCO members to reject the application. Israel also opposed adding the Palestinians to the ranks of UNESCO members.

The Financial Times quotes UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova as warning against U.S. “disengagement” from the organization, arguing that it supports “core U.S. interests” in a number of key countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

Palestinian officials say they will call on UNESCO to recognize key monuments in the occupied Palestinian territories as world heritage sites. These include the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the place where many Christians say Jesus is believed to have been born.

In the Gaza Strip, Israel says it has carried out an overnight airstrike against militants who fired rockets at Israel. Local officials said the bodies of two men from a group that has ties to the militant group Hamas were found in the area. Another earlier Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian militant as he prepared to fire a rocket into Israel.

The attacks came just hours after Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian groups in Gaza had announced they would accept an Egyptian-mediated truce to end days of deadly violence – as long as Israel reciprocated.

From New York, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the rocket incident and urged “maximum Israeli restraint.” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also called for calm, saying she “wholeheartedly condemns the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, wherever they are.”

Earlier Sunday, Gaza militants fired about 10 rockets into southern Israel, and Israeli aircraft responded with attacks on several militant sites. Israel closed schools within 40 kilometers of Gaza as a precaution.

On Saturday, Israel’s airstrikes killed nine Islamic Jihad members in Gaza – one of the deadliest incidents in and around the Palestinian territory in months. The militant group fired about 20 rockets into southern Israel Saturday, killing one Israeli civilian.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, has avoided direct involvement in the latest round of fighting, but Hamas officials have not criticized their more radical rivals for attacking Israel.