The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, granted the Palestinians full membership on Monday. Palestine thereby becomes the body's195th member.
UNESCO protects world historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy, access to schooling for girls and cultural understanding. One of the first results of Palestine's membership could be that the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is listed as a world heritage site for the first time, providing it special protections. The Palestinians have already prepared an application for listing the site, the Associated Press reports.
The Palestinian request for UNESCO membership passed 107-14, with 52 abstentions. It was far more than the 81 votes needed for approval. A huge cheer erupted in UNESCO's General Assembly in Paris after the vote, according to news reports.
In a surprise, France voted yes. The 107 in favor also included Ireland, Austria, Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa . The U.S., Canada, Germany, Israel, Sweden and the Netherlands were among the 14 voting no. Britain, Italy, Japan and New Zealand were among the abstainers.
The membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.
It is part of a broader Palestinian move for greater international recognition in hopes of moving closer to statehood through channels other than simply relying on stalled negotiations with Israel's right-wing government.
The Palestinians sought UNESCO membership after formally requesting the UN Security Council to upgrade Palestine to full UN membership in September. That request is now under review by a committee, and the U.S. has said it will veto the move.
The UNESCO vote "is not directed against anyone, but represents support for freedom and justice," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement. "This vote is for the sake of peace and represents international consensus on support for the legitimate Palestinian national rights of our people, the foremost of which is the establishment of its independent state."
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called Monday's UNESCO vote "regrettable, premature." The U.S., she said, "will maintain its membership in and commitment to UNESCO," but "Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO." According to the Associated Press, the U.S. says it will not make a $60 million payment to complete its contributions to the agency for this year and will suspend future funding. The U.S. provides 22 percent of UNESCO's budget - but the agency has survived without it in the past, the AP notes.
Israeli's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, complained the vote was a Palestinian "unilateral maneuver" and would mean the "politicization" of UNESCO, news media reported. He said, "We regret that the organization of science has opted to adopt a resolution which is a resolution of science fiction."
Yet Palestinian officials said on Monday, they were joining Israel and Jordan in the campaign to add the Dead Sea to a new list of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported.
All three countries border the Dead Sea and the participation of all three is required for the application to go forward. The Palestinian Authority included the Dead Sea on the list of world heritage sites it submitted to UNESCO. The bid could "allow for Palestinians to invest in tourism and use of its natural resources in the panoramic and historical site," the Palestinian tourism and antiquities ministry said in a statement.
Photo: Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. lyng883 CC 2.0