Not only is this one of the longest occupations in the modern history, but also a conflict that originates at the junction of three major Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is replete with complexities and requires a soft approach. Over the years international authorities and governments have bridged gaps of the conflict, created new ones and proposed a number of solutions (unsuccessfully). President Trump’s campaign was full of rhetoric to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv (the city where all countries currently have their respective embassies) to Jerusalem. The question itself harbours numerous other questions. While the claim to move the embassy is not new (US congress passed the ‘Jerusalem Embassy Act’ in 1995 to move the embassy to West Jerusalem), every president has since used executive powers to postpone the process (reviewed after every 6 months) on grounds of national security. This article will explore the reasons as to why no country has an embassy in Jerusalem even when Israel claims it to be its official and undivided capital and how divided communities within the city are.
Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. At the centre of this is its importance to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Al-Asqa compound is the holiest place for Jews and third holiest place for Muslims. The Jews believe it to be the position of the First and Second Temple under the Dome of the Rock. The Muslims believe it to be the place where Abraham brought his son Isaac for sacrifice to God to prove his faith and called it Awla al-Qiblatayn (the first prayer direction before Mecca), Thani al-Masjidayn (the second mosque after Mecca), and Isra ’ and Mi ’raj (the place from where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven).
Connected by religious faiths, Jerusalem has been exploited and plundered for varied political gains. While the history extends back to centuries, I will start from WWI and British interference which lay the seeds for conflict in modern history.
During WWI, the British promised Palestinians their ‘promised land’ of Jerusalem in exchange for cooperation. These sentiments were inflated by the ongoing anti-Semitic oppression in Russia at the time. The large promise was made on the pretext that the Ottoman Empire would be dissolved and emerging leaders of the world would distribute the ‘loot’ with no consequence whatsoever. The promise named Balfour Declaration of 1917 conflicted with a similar one called the McMahon-Hussein agreement which the British made with the Arabs to get them to Allies side and this became the seed which has only grown since.
Complications further arose with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine; it contained a recommendation that Jerusalem be placed under a special international regime, a corpus separatum, administered by the United Nations and be separate from both the Jewish and Arab states envisioned. Heightened tensions between the Arab states and Israel led to the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948 where Israel got control of West Jerusalem while Jordan retained East Jerusalem. However, The Six Day War of 1967 led to absolute Israeli victory and occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Golan heights. The city has since seen a stark split between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem.
Post occupation, the Jerusalem Municipality has been one of the strongest tools of the government to curb Palestinian expansion and any chance for claim to land/region. Any un-calculated move on behalf of a chief negotiator of the conflict such as the US will only exacerbate the oppression of a particular community and destroy any chance of implementation of delicate proposals and peace treaties under construction.
It is important to understand that Jerusalem is a microcosm of the conflict and has evolved to become more than just a city which harbours major religious sites. The Israelis and Palestinians associate themselves with the city as a matter of identity, history, culture, bloodshed and years of struggle. Since the conflict extends back centuries, the emotions and the struggle attached with it are beyond any simple compensation.
Demographics and Municipality
The Israeli Government has constantly boosted its efforts to curb a ‘Palestinian boom’. In the years after occupation, approximately 35% of the land in East Jerusalem was expropriated by Israeli governments from Palestinian landowners for Israeli settlements. The Jerusalem Master Plan 2000 aimed to keep the demographic ratio at 30% Arab and 70% Jewish. The municipality strictly controls the building permits and has added a number of legal nuances to add to the difficulty in constructing a house in Palestinian neighbourhoods (Tal Kulka, Efrat Cohen-Bar, 2012b). Vast expanses of land in Palestinian neighbourhoods have been declared as ‘National Parks’ (shifting authority from municipality to National Parks Authority) and ‘green spaces’ providing even less space to expand (Tal Kulka, Efrat Cohen-Bar, 2012a).
One will observe the stark difference between the infrastructure of West and East Jerusalem. There is one kilometer of paved road per 710 persons in West Jerusalem, compared to one kilometer per 2,448 persons in East Jerusalem, and there is a similar ratio for the sewerage system (1:743 to 1:2,809). This is clearly reflected by the sanctioned budget. While Palestinians in East Jerusalem comprise 37% of the population of Jerusalem, but they receive 12% of its budget.
Restriction in construction activities and permits is another barrier present for the Palestinians. The Floor to Area (FAR) ratio in major Palestinian neighbourhoods ranges from 25 to 70% while it can go as high as 120% in Israeli neighbourhoods. In simple terms, this means that for every 100 square meters of land available, Palestinians can construct only upto 700 square meters (usually lower) while Israelis can construct upto 1200 square meters.
The Palestinians have been under great pressure for their residency status since the implementation of Israel’s policy termed ‘center of life’ in 1996. It requires everybody living in Jerusalem to provide proof of physical existence in the city to retain their residency status. Jersalemites with an Israeli citizenship need not provide that (Barakat, 2012). The policy makes it impossible for people without an Israeli citizenship to work in the West Bank (which has more work opportunities). Construction of the wall around East Jerusalem has further separated the Palestinians from the closest city of Ramallah. Moving in and out of the city requires to pass through numerous checkpoints and the idea of people (living outside) moving to East Jerusalem is an expensive nightmare. Not to forget that all of this is in violation of International Humanitarian Law which provides the Palestinians living in Jerusalem a permanent residency status.
Politics and Religion
The divide has been marked by two intifadas (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation) and relations hang on delicate strings. There are constant intrusions on Islamic activities by Israeli authorities. For example, a law to prevent Al Aqsa Mosque and all other mosques from issuing the Muslim call for prayer, “Athan,” via loud-speakers. On the other hand, even though it is not forbidden in Islam to let non-believers worship in Mosques (except in Medina), Jews are not allowed to worship at Temple Mount.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, politically rides his people’s anger and frustration regarding alleged Jewish intentions to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli leaders continue to use the Jewish sanctity of the Temple Mount to gamer public support. On Jerusalem Day, May 2014, Netanyahu proclaimed that “Jerusalem was unified 47 years ago. It will never be redivided: We will never divide our heart — the heart of the Nation. Jerusalem is also Mount Zion and Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), the Western Wall — Israel’s eternal.”
The topic of ‘control’ sparks fire for both communities: for Israelis the 6 Day War was a historic moment when Jerusalem was reunited after almost 1900 years of exile while for Muslims it marked the day of Naksa (defeat) for they lost control of one of their holiest lands after 1400 years (except for the Crusaders’ occupation in 1099-1187 and 1229-44). The respective gain and loss has resulted in Anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist feelings with cries of ‘Jihad’ amongst the latter community. Multiple Muslim militant organisations have adopted the slogan ‘Al-Asqa’ (Hamas in Gaza).
June 2017 will mark the 50th Anniversary of the 6 Day War and as a result 2017 becomes an even more important year to make a decision such as moving an embassy to the city. Shifting the embassy to Jerusalem will set ablaze issues mentioned above, if not balanced carefully. In addition to that, the city will have to be re-hauled for security purposes making diplomatic activities sustainable. This will require cooperation from both, the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Any disturbance in status quo can easily build up to a rogue issue. It is evident that a state of calm is maintained in Jerusalem because both communities feel that they lay claim to the city. An incursion in that will come across as a move that explicitly favours the Israeli cause. East Jerusalem hosts approx 70000 Palestinians, more than 90% of the population of the Historic Basin and about one quarter of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem. Any treaty/decision without the involvement of the community can have catastrophic consequences.
The Arab states can move in a unified direction to solve the crisis. Given the current financial dynamics in the region, it is in the interest of both parties to come to a solution as soon as possible. Egypt and Jordan need major economic re-structuring while Saudi Arabia still figures out methods to balance accounts post OPEC meeting. History stands proof to the fact that any hasty, military move will only lead to chaos. This issue needs to be solved through diplomatic channels and needs to be given priority.
References and Bibliography
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