After years of deterrents from the United States via congressional legislation and diplomatic pressure, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has voted in favor of admitting Palestine as a full member. The move, viewed by many as symbolic, could have one of two separate major impacts: first regarding UNESCO’s relationship with the US; and second on the grounds for Palestinian communities threatened by Israeli occupation, especially in the Jordan Valley, West Bank.
The US was only one of 14 members to vote against full member status for the Palestinians. The vote, however, could have a greater impact on the entire organization. In 1990, the US Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to withdraw its funding of any UN body which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the status of a member state. The US currently funds UNESCO with 22 percent of its budget, or approximately $70 million a year. If the US does in fact cut its funding, other nations will have to pick up the balance or the organization suffers as a whole.
Assuming UNESCO can sustain itself beyond the threat of major cuts, Palestinian communities – and others around the world – may see their livelihood improve. UNESCO supports and protects education, environment, and culture; all under threat for Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly the Jordan Valley.
Since the war in 1967, Israel has been actively annexing Jordan Valley land and resources from the Palestinians. Though the West Bank is considered Palestinian territory and would be the largest region for a future Palestinian state, much of it is under complete Israeli military and administrative control. The Jordan Valley is no exception with 95 percent of it under full Israeli control.
Aside from about 20 permanent Palestinian communities, thousands of nomadic Bedouin live in the Jordan Valley and are the most vulnerable. The rapid growth in Israeli settlements has threatened their existence and has made their basic human rights unattainable.
For centuries, Bedouins have maintained their way of life following agricultural trends and relocating seasonally. Along with setting up temporary homes, they also set up modest primary and secondary schools for children. Israel refuses to grant many communities permits to build schools among other infrastructures, and have demolished them repeatedly for “security” reasons. Such tactics have forced children to walk for miles a day to one of the 38 “legal” basic or secondary schools in the Valley; sometimes passing through Israeli checkpoints, settlements, and military outposts where the children face constant harassment.
UNESCO’s first of six “internationally agreed education goals” directly addresses the needs of Palestinian children in the Jordan Valley: “Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.”
In order to supply the lush settlement towns and their palm tree farms in this desert region, water has been diverted away from Palestinian communities, thereby drying up their farms. Though the Jordan Valley is mostly desert, it is believed to be the richest in water in the West Bank. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, “44 million m3 of water a year is allocated to fewer than 10,000 [Israeli] settlers living in the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area. This amount is almost one-third the amount of water accessible to the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.” Such a move directly harms and endangers Bedouin and farm life in the Valley forcing many communities to relocate or simply disappear.
One of UNESCO’s major projects looks to provide research, resources management, and education and capacity building around the issue of water. With Palestine becoming a member state of UNESCO, more attention to the dire water needs of the Palestinians will be addressed, possibly saving the existence of Bedouin communities under threat.
Along with membership from UNESCO, Palestinians seek protection for their endangered cultural heritage. Annually, approximately 120,000 artifacts are illegally removed from the Palestinian Territories by Israeli state and private excavations as well as theft from Palestinian excavations. The Jordan Valley is no exception as it is home to ancient history that goes as far back as the earliest civilizations.
Palestinians also seek World Heritage status for up to 20 sites including Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem and Abraham’s grave in Hebron. However, under Israeli occupation, even sites within the Palestinian Territories have been under threat by Israeli confiscation. Many religious Muslim sites among Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem have been turned into Jewish sites.
UNESCO’s World Heritage status can help protect these sites and promote universal understanding rather than exclusivity by one faith.
There are many possibilities for the protection of Palestinian communities and culture as a full member of UNESCO. Will the US keep its outdated law in place or support the education, environment and culture of Palestinians and the rest of the world?
Ehab Zahriyeh is an independent multi-media journalist who recently covered the Egyptian revolution. He has also produced work from Palestine/Israel including the Gaza Strip, Jordan, and Morocco.