The Status of Jerusalem

Jerusalem must be urgently given the special status of a universal city open and accessible to Christians, Muslims and Jews and to humankind at large — By Mrinal Roy

Reason and a sense of history no longer seem to prevail. In its chequered history spanning some 3000 years, Jerusalem has been constantly coveted and its status repeatedly challenged through history. According to records, it has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, destroyed and rebuilt. Archaeological excavations reveal the many and diverse aspects of its rich past in every layer of its earth. Jerusalem was successively under the rule of inter alia Egyptians, Jews, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Arab Caliphate, the Crusaders and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The most important part of Jerusalem is its Old City, delineated by a wall built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1538. The Old City is home to some of the most sacred religious sites of Christians, Muslims and Jews. These important religious sites include the Temple Mount, and its western Wall for Jews, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa for Christians. The seminal religious importance of Jerusalem to the three faiths makes it a Holy city with a special status for billions of people.

Since the 19th century, the Old City has been divided into the Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981. The diverse Christian denominations from the earliest times are all present in Jerusalem. For example, the space of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is partitioned among the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches. On a family holiday in Israel some years ago, I found that the Old City was the most interesting and culturally attractive part of Jerusalem. It is steeped in history, cosmopolitan and largely unchanged over time. It encompasses a maze of narrow alleyways, old architecture, religious sites and monuments. Its old bustling market is a treasure trove of artefacts from diverse countries of the region with stores owned and run by the same families of traders through centuries. Against such a backdrop how can Jerusalem be the sole preserve of a nation or a religion?

Simon Sebag Montefiore, the many awards winning British author of ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’, aptly captures the unique status of the city as follows: ‘Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths… and now the key to peace in the Middle East.’

Partition of Palestine

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, its territory was dismantled. Palestine was carved out of Southern Syria which had been part of the Ottoman Empire and put under British civil administration with Jerusalem as its capital from 1920 to 1948, by a League of Nations mandate.

In the wake of the World War II and in recognition of the persecution and atrocities perpetuated against Jews during the war, the UN voted to partition Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states. Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. However, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, West Jerusalem was among the areas captured and annexed by Israel. Jordan captured and annexed East Jerusalem including the Old City.

Nineteen years later in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan and subsequently annexed it into Jerusalem. The international community rejected the annexation as illegal and treats East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. However, Israel has a stronger claim to sovereignty over West Jerusalem.

The unequivocal international view, including that of all previous US administrations, is that Jerusalem’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on 6 December is therefore out of step with the traditional US stance. It has been criticized by the majority of leaders from across the world including those of the European Union, the Middle East as well as by the Pope.

Despite threats by the US against countries voting against them, a motion condemning the Donald Trump decision was approved by the United Nations General Assembly by a large majority of 128 to 9 with 35 abstentions. The UK, Germany and France voted for the motion. The US had to use its veto previously to prevent a similar vote 14-1 vote in the United Nations Security Council. The international community does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since the 1980s, there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem despite the fact that all branches of the Israeli government, the Knesset and the Supreme Court are located in the city.

There is a consensus among world leaders that the US decision will only make an already difficult situation worse. It will exacerbate tensions and aggravate the sense of oppression, unfairness and alienation in the region.

Scuttling peace

In a move which adds fuel to an already explosive situation, Israel is multiplying its efforts to canvass other countries to shift their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Guatemala has already announced its decision to do so. It is more and more evident that the presence of ultra-nationalist, ultra-orthodox and right wing religious parties spawned by party list proportional representation in successive Israeli coalition governments holding flimsy majorities has systematically scuttled peace initiatives.

They have imposed hard-line policies on government such as building illegal settlements or appropriating land in Palestinian occupied territory, causing widespread protests and anger among the Palestinians. Holding most of the cards in their hands, they seem to favour the status quo instead of resolutely engaging peace negotiations to end the longstanding conflict. In such a context, it is no wonder that Israel has shown increasing intransigence towards any peace initiative and the settlement of the long outstanding Palestinian State issue. The Donald Trump decision in many ways legitimizes such decried decisions. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has severely condemned the US stance and said that the US could no longer be a mediator in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The upshot is a lop-sided situation where one of the two protagonists, Israel, is a sovereign State since May 1948 whereas the Palestinians who were the original inhabitants of the area are yet to obtain a free state nearly 70 years after. Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is the world’s longest military occupation in modern times.

We should recall that soldiers from a multitude of countries and the colonies fought and gave their lives in World War II to defeat Nazism and Fascism. In deference to the sufferings of the Jews, the world through the UN decided to allocate land to them in Palestine to build a homeland. Is it right for them under the circumstances to now want to claim and annex increasingly more land in Palestinian occupied territory on the tenuous grounds that it was purportedly their land in ancient times according to biblical accounts? The clock of history cannot be set back. The Palestinians were made to sacrifice their land to accommodate them. Would Israel now respond by annexing even more land from the Palestinians?

This iniquitous situation is probably the biggest cause of angst and anger in the Arab world. The Middle East is sitting on a powder keg with a short fuse. Extremism is on the rise. A peace deal which strictly contains Israeli territorial ambitions and includes the setting up of an independent Palestinian State would go a long way to defuse the deep seated anger in the region. It is abundantly clear that there would be no peace agreement with Israel without some arm twisting and a firmer stance by the United States and the European Union. Yet there does not seem to be any real intent and will by the world leaders to settle the long outstanding issue of an independent Palestine State. Time is running out.

Open to all

There cannot be a fair world order if rogue nations who do not abide by UN resolutions are not brought to book. There cannot be an elimination of conflict if the key leaders of the world do not collectively throw their weight to assiduously broker peace agreements.

It is clear from the above that it is only those who do not have a sense of history nor fathom the unique place of Jerusalem in the faiths of billions of people who can treat the status of Jerusalem so lightly. The status of Jerusalem cannot be a pawn in an endless political chess game. Its universality must transcend narrow parochial interests. It must be recognized and formalized by all.

Jerusalem must be urgently given the special status of a universal city open and accessible, as has been the case under so many enlightened and benevolent rulers of the city during its chequered history, to people of the three faiths and to humankind at large.


*  Published in print edition on 29 December 2017

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