GENEVA, (AP) -A United Nations anti-racism panel has questioned Israel’s policy on preserving holy sites, asking the country to explain whether it protects places considered sacred to religions other than Judaism.
Israel is expected to go later this week before the panel of 18 independent experts overseeing compliance with the United Nations’ 38-year-old anti-racism treaty — a hearing that could fuel the debate over an Israeli construction project at Jerusalem’s disputed hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The project has prompted protests among Palestinians and others in the Muslim world.
“To date, approximately 120 places have been declared as holy sites, all of which are Jewish,” the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in its list of questions, written before the recent furor over the construction project.
Israel — whose quadrennial review was postponed in August because of the Lebanon war — is to appear before the panel on Thursday and Friday to answer the questions, which include whether it “has set forth regulations in relation to holy sites of both the Jewish and non-Jewish population.”
Two weeks ago, Israeli archaeologists began the salvage dig ahead of the construction of a new pedestrian walkway up to the disputed hilltop compound, which is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Most holy places are also considered as antiquities sites,” Israel said in 2005 submission to the panel, arguing that Muslim sites are still protected under its law.
The Jewish state referred in the 124-page report to a pending High Court decision over whether the government was required to offer Muslim holy places the same status as Jewish religious sites. Nevertheless, it said several existing statues protect holy places by requiring excavation, drainage, sewage and demolition projects to first seek government permission if they are near religious sites — Jewish or non-Jewish.
The archaeological dig is taking place about 60 yards away from the Al Aqsa mosque and gold-capped Dome of the Rock — an area considered the third-holiest in Islam.
It is also Judaism’s holiest site, having housed the biblical Jewish temples. Jews have gathered for centuries to pray outside the compound at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient compound.
Israel’s government has also been asked to explain if it discriminates between Jewish citizens and what it calls its “Arab sector” in how it provides housing, education, public services, land rights and legal protection against acts of violence.