By Etgar Lefkovits
JERUSALEM (April 10) - At Israel's request, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is sending a special envoy to Jerusalem to investigate the reports of Islamic Wakf construction work on the Temple Mount, an UNESCO official confirmed to The Jerusalem Post last night.
The envoy, Prof. Oleg Grabar of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, said he expects to make the trip the second week in May, in light of the Israeli government's acceptance of the mission.
He said that he will submit his report to UNESCO by May 20.
The purpose of the mission "is to find out how things happen, and what can be done to prevent unsatisfactory things from happening," Grabar said, adding that it "will not be a police inspection."
The assistant director-general for cultural affairs at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Mounir Bouchenaki, said yesterday said that he received an official request 10 days ago from the Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO, Aryeh Gabai, to send an envoy to Jerusalem.
Grabar lived in Jerusalem for two years in the 1960s as director of the Albright Institute, and is the author of two books on Jerusalem. Last in Israel on a private visit in May, Grabar said that the problem at the Temple Mount stems from the fact that "there is no authority to decide who can do what."
"We are well aware that all that goes on in Jerusalem's historic Old City is of tremendous importance to world heritage," Bouchenaki said.
For years, UNESCO has been sending envoys to Jerusalem to report on the status of archaeological excavations there, reports which were often highly critical of digs Israel conducted in a city which the UN body does not consider to be under Israeli sovereignty.
The last such UNESCO mission was in 1998, and ended in rancor after the envoy at the time, Sorbonne Prof. Leon Pressouyre, came and left Jerusalem without meeting any Israeli officials. Grabar conceded that this mission was "very badly handled."
Asked how one could make a balanced report without such meetings, Bouchenaki said that the French professor did have informal contacts with Israeli professors and scholars.
"You have to understand the Jerusalem file is very difficult and very complicated. Every word written here is studied and reviewed," he said.
Immediately after the Pressouyre visit, Israel asked the director-general of UNESCO to send someone else for any future missions.
Since the visit, Israelis and Palestinians have also been opposed to any further missions, for what Bouchenaki called "internal reasons."
Indeed, at that very time the future of the site was being discussed in the most far-ranging negotiations ever between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, talks that collapsed last summer in Camp David.
This time, Bouchenaki promised, the envoy will meet with both Israeli and Palestinians officials. To this end, the UNESCO officials are now organizing a meeting between Grabar and the Israeli and Palestinians ambassadors to Paris.
Grabar said that he does not have a list of the Israeli officials he will be meeting with, and could not say if they will include archaeologists.
The idea of UNESCO involvement was first raised publicly in Jerusalem last month at a meeting of the Knesset Educational Committee which dealt with the reports of the Wakf's ongoing construction work on the Temple Mount.
Confirming what archaeologists have been warning for months now, the head of the Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, said at the meeting that, without archaeological supervision, the Wakf was causing "unequivocal damage" at Judaism's holiest site.
Last month, UNESCO sent a special envoy from its Paris headquarters to Afghanistan in a fruitless attempt to try to get the Taliban militias to rescind their orders to destroy ancient Buddha statues.