Israel to allow UN into Jerusalem Old City

Jordan on Tuesday said Israel has agreed to allow a UN mission to "investigate and assess" heritage conservation in Jerusalem's Old City for the first time since 2004.

"Jordan and Palestine, supported by Arab states, succeeded in pressuring Israel, for the first time since 2004, to accept and facilitate a UNESCO experts' mission to investigate and assess the status of heritage and conservation of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls," a palace statement said.

The mission will start its work on May 15 "and it has to present its report and recommendations before June 1st, 2013, just before the beginning of the World Heritage Committee 37th session," it added.

According to the palace, Israel confirmed its decision in a letter to UNESCO director general Irina Bokova and in a statement read out on Tuesday at a meeting in Paris of UNESCO's executive board.

Israel also agreed to take part in a technical meeting of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation "to discuss recent Israeli violations against the Mughrabi Gate," in Jerusalem, it added.

The Mughrabi ramp leads from the plaza by the Western Wall, the most sacred site at which Jews can pray, up to the adjoining the sacred compound, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which houses Al-Aqsa Mosque.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman confirmed to AFP that a UNESCO delegation would be arriving "in the near future" but stressed it would visit heritage sites "throughout Israel, not only in Jerusalem".

Yigal Palmor stressed "there was nothing new about this cooperation (between Israel and UNESCO), and any attempt to portray it otherwise is aimed at concealing the fact some Arab elements have turned UNESCO from a professional agency to a vehicle for political attacks".

"The tendentious language of the statement, loaded with political bias of what is fundamentally a professional activity, is not conducive to finding rational solutions to problems raised by the unwarranted politicisation of UNESCO's work, a regrettable phenomenon intensified since the admission of Palestine as a member state in that organisation," he added.

Cultural heritage has become a major issue for the two sides since the Palestinians became a UNESCO member in 2011.

Tuesday's announcement comes after a deal was struck in March by which the Palestinian Authority confirmed a verbal agreement dating back to 1924 giving Jordan custodianship over Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem.