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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Proposed International Supervision of Jerusalem’s Holy Sites Has a History of Failure

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Israel, Jerusalem

On October 16, 2015, the French Ambassador to the United Nations tabled a draft text before the UN Security Council calling for international observers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A source told Le Figaro, “This will put in place independent observers able to identify possible violations of the status quo.”1

Desecrated graves on Mount of Olives cemetery
Desecrated graves on Mount of Olives cemetery

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu strongly rejected the French diplomatic foray. “There is no mention [in the French draft] of Palestinian incitement and Palestinian terrorism, and it calls for the internationalization of the Temple Mount.” Netanyahu said on October 18, 2015. “We’ve already seen what happens in holy sites in the Middle East when extreme Muslims destroy each other’s mosques, Christian sites, heritage sites, Jewish sites,” the Israeli leader said.2

Just this week, Jews were horrified to see the Palestinian destruction of the venerated Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem/Nablus.

International Observers Failed for 19 Years

But the absolute failure of United Nations international supervisors tasked with overseeing Jerusalem’s Jewish holy sites between 1949 and 1967 is a flashing red light warning of France’s initiative.

The UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) was officially established by UN Security Council Resolution 50 on May 29, 1948 for peacekeeping in the Middle East. On August 11, 1949, UN Resolution 73 mandated that UNTSO was responsible for “observing and maintaining the cease-fires and Armistices” after the Palestine Conflict. [Emphasis added.]

One of those Armistice Agreements, between Jordan and Israel and signed on April 3, 1949,3 called for the “resumption of the normal functioning of the cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mount Scopus and free access thereto; free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives…” [Emphasis added.]

UNTSO utterly failed in its mandate to maintain the Armistice for 19 years.4  Specifically:

  • The cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mt. Scopus – Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital – were shut.
  • There was no access to Jewish Holy Sites, particularly the Western Wall. Ancient Jewish synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were razed.
  • The Jewish cemetery was not only off limits to Jews, but the ancient cemetery was desecrated, with tombstones used as paving stones.5 Roads and a hotel were built atop many graves.6
Members of the TIPH
Members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH)

UNTSO still maintains its headquarters in Jerusalem, although it plays no observer role in Israel. Some of its functions have evolved: UNTSO military observers are “today attached to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping forces.”7

The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was an international observer mission established in 1997 to give Palestinians of Hebron “a feeling of security.” Its 180 personnel are from Norway, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.8

Like the feckless UNTSO, TIPH still exists today, although few can explain their mission or relevancy today.  Both organizations require Israel’s agreement to operate and function.

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1 Le Figaro, Jérusalem: la France réclame des observateurs sur l’esplanade des lieux saints, October 16, 2015.

2 Ha’aretz, Netanyahu: Israel Rejects French Draft on Temple Mount, October 18, 2015.

3 Jordan-Israel Armistice Agreement, April 3, 1949.

4 “Israel Alleges Desecration of Holy Places,” Jerusalem Post, November 16, 1961. “On November 15, Foreign Minister Golda Meir said in the Knesset that the Government had information regarding the desecration of Rachel’s Tomb and the Mount of Olives [Jewish] cemetery in Jordanian territory [both in the vicinity of Jerusalem].  Appeals to the UN had proved fruitless.  [Emphasis added.] The source of this evil, she pointed out, was Jordan’s failure to honour Paragraph 8 of the Armistice Agreement providing for access to Jewish holy places in Jordan.”

See also Nadav Shragai, “Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish Holy Place, Was Never a Mosque,” November 8, 2010, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

5 Nadav Shragai, “The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem: Why Continued Israeli Control Is Vital,” July 28, 2009, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

6 Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [University of Indiana Press, 1994].  “A vivid portrait of the situation is given by [John] Oesterricher, a Christian clergyman and scholar: ‘During Jordanian rule, 34 out of the Old City’s 35 synagogues were dynamited.  Some were turned into stables, others in chicken coops.  There seemed to be no limit to the work of desecration.  Many thousands of tombstones were taken from the ancient cemetery of Mount of Olives to serve as building material and paving stones.  A few were even used to surface a footpath leading to a latrine in a Jordanian army camp.”
7United Nations Truce Supervision Organization

8 Temporary International Presence in Hebron.