Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Land ?

JERUSALEM - Whose City?

An eminent historian looks at the interests of Jews, Muslims and Christians

Condensed from The New Republic, Martin Gilbert (Reader's Digest, September 1995)

On August 18, 1994, Yasser Arafat, speaking as head of the Palestinian National Authority in Gaza and Jericho, told Arab youngsters at a summer camp: "Those of you who lit the intifada fire must now act as defenders of this young state, whose capital is Jerusalem. It is Bir Salem (the fountain of Salem). Salem was one of the Canaanite kings, one of our forefathers. This city is the capital of our children and our children's children."

Most inquirers into the status of Jerusalem start with the historic nature of Jewish, Muslim and Christian links with the city. This is not a mere historical or religious curiosity. As Israel forges ahead on separate peace tracks with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this age-old issue is emerging on the international agenda, despite Israel's insistence that Jerusalem is not negotiable.

That Jerusalem is "holy to the three monotheistic religions" is a frequent assertion by those who wish to make the city's status the subject of negotiation. Only the Jews, however, regard Jerusalem as both their spiritual and temporal centre. It is a focal point of Jewish pilgrimage and the one city towards which Jews are enjoined to set their feet as a matter of religious piety, as in the Passover and Yom Kippur invocation, "Next year in Jerusalem."

For Muslims, even those who regard Jerusalem as theirs from Canaanite times, it is the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca that is the paramount shrine. Mecca, not Jerusalem, is the object of the biggest pilgrimage a Muslim must try to make at least once in a lifetime.

For Christians, Jerusalem contains some, but not all, of their holiest shrines. In Jerusalem are the reputed sites of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, the Tomb of Jesus and the Place of the Ascension. But there are also Christian holy places elsewhere in Israel, among them the birthplace of Jesus (Bethlehem), the scenes of his childhood (Nazareth), the site of his baptism (by the Jordan River), and the locale of his main preaching and miracles (Galilee).

In contrast, all the main holy sites for Jews lie within the post-1967 municipal borders of Jerusalem. Foremost are the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, both of which came within Jordanian jurisdiction in 1949 and were inaccessible to Israeli Jews for nearly two decades. Since the Six Day War in 1967, on the other hand, Israel has allowed people of all three faiths unrestricted access to their holy places throughout the city.

Jews at prayers all over the world face towards the Temple Mount. Muslims, even those praying on the Mount, face away from it, towards Mecca. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is mentioned on 656 occasions; the city's well-being is central to Jewish prayer. In the New Testament, the city is the scene of the climacteric events of the Christian faith. In the Koran, Jerusalem is not mentioned by name at all.

Even though the Jewish religious claim is persuasive, it is Jerusalem's status as a national capital that is at the centre of the current debate.

It became the capital of the first Jewish kingdom around 1000 BC. Driven into exile by Nebuchadrezzar II in 586 BC, the Jews returned 50 years later and rebuilt Jerusalem as their capital. The unity of the city achieved in 1967, then, was more than a quirk of military geography; it was the fulfillment of unbroken historical longings.

No other nation or empire held Jerusalem in such regard. During 13 centuries of Muslim control, no Arab ruler or conqueror made the city his capital. When Suleiman became ruler in 715, he took as his administrative centre not Jerusalem but Ramla, a town he had founded some years earlier for that very purpose.

Neither the Egyptian rulers from 1260 to 1517, nor the ottoman Turks, who ruled from 1517 to 1917, even contemplated making the city their capital. Although the British made Jerusalem the seat of the Palestine Mandate in 1922, authority remained in London.

Under British rule, from 1917 to 1948, freedom of worship was respected, and many new churches, mosques and synagogues were built. But between 1948 and 1967, the Jordanians denied Israeli Jews access even to the 58 synagogues in the occupied Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

The war of 1948 ended in the partition of Palestine between Arab territory and the new state of Israel. And in December 1949, Israel proclaimed Jerusalem its capital. Across the barbed wire that marked the dividing line, Jordanian East Jerusalem was not made the capital, even for its Palestinian residents. This remained in Amman.

For Jews in all centuries, Jerusalem was a place not only of distant longing but of actual settlement. By the time the city was declared the capital of Israel, it had long had a substantial Jewish majority.

In 1845, more than half a century before the first Zionist Congress set out the territorial aims of political Zionism, the Prussian consulate estimated that there were 7,120 Jews, 5,000 Muslims and 3,390 Christians in the city. From that moment, the Jews were to remain the largest single religious community.

Despite the Jewish majority, the British chose only Arab mayors after they conquered the city in 1917. The growing Jewish presence included the Jewish national and University Library, the Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University, where Winston Churchill planted a palm tree in 1921. Three Jewish garden cities were set up, pioneers of modern suburban planning. But three Arab uprisings within two decades led to the effective separation of Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods, including the creation of separate bus routes.

In 1937, when Britain raised the possibility of separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, the Jewish Agency proposed a partition of Jerusalem itself based on the two groups' main areas of urban settlement. The Arab states around Palestine refused to accept the idea of Jewish statehood and rejected this compromise. A violent decade followed, culminating in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948.

At that time 100,000 Jews and 65,000 Arabs inhabited the city. The Jewish Agency accepted a plan for a United Nations administration, calling it a "heavy sacrifice" that nevertheless would serve as "the Jewish contribution to the solution of a painful problem." The Arabs rejected this proposal too.

While Israel declared statehood, the Arab countries denied statehood to the Palestinian Arabs. Jordan annexed the land not occupied by Israel. And while Israel built Jerusalem up as a capital, with its parliament building, law courts and government ministries, the question never arose in 19 years of Jordanian rule of making East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital.

The population growth between 1949 and 1966 underlined this disparity of interest. While the Arab population increased to only 70,000, the Jewish population rose to 195,000. This number included many Jewish emigrants from Morocco, Iraq and other Arab lands where they had long been harassed and persecuted.

When on June 5, 1967, Jordanian troops joined in the Six Day War, the die was cast. The Israeli government had urged Jordan's King Hussein not to enter the war. His decision to do so was decisive for the future of Jerusalem and has determined its situation until today.

Within two days the Jordanian sector of the city was under Israeli control. The physical barriers were thrown down. "We earnestly stretch out our hands to our Arab brethren in peace," declared Moshe Dayan, the minister of defence, "but we have returned to Jerusalem never to part from her again."

East Jerusalem, one fifth of the built-up area of the city, was incorporated by Israel, and the city was given new municipal boundaries. By the end of 1993, the Jewish population had risen to more than 400,000, the Arab population to 155,000.

As a result of the policies of Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993, facilities were provided for the Arab minority far beyond anything introduced under Jordanian rule, including a sewer and piped water system, clinics, libraries, parks and gardens.

With reunification, Israel pledged to uphold freedom of access and worship, and this pledge has been kept. But while maintaining open access to the holy sites of Christianity and Islam, each Israeli government since 1967 has been committed to maintaining Jerusalem both as its capital and as an undivided city.

Kollek, although no longer mayor, observed in a recent conversation that any division, however amicably achieved, would involve demarcated borders, customs posts, checkpoints and the cutting in half of the city's postal, electricity, water and drainage systems. It would also necessitate the creation of two different legal systems.

Yet the American and British governments have continued to take a lead internationally in refusing to move their Israeli embassies to the capital city that they do not recognize. One American diplomat was refused State Department permission to participate in a meeting at the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel on the grounds that the hotel was located in East Jerusalem.

On April 7, 1994, a letter from Downing Street stated that "the British Government does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem." The British ambassador later explained that what Britain did recognize was that Israel "exercises de facto authority in West Jerusalem."

The 1994 Washington Declaration confirmed Jordan's special position with regard to the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The declaration was signed by Hussein and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the presence of President Bill Clinton. Palestinian Arab leaders, meeting at Orient House in East Jerusalem throughout the year, indicated their desire to see East Jerusalem as their capital.

This desire was only articulated for the first time 25 years ago, after the unification of the city under Israeli rule. Now it is a staple of Palestinian rhetoric and actions.

The Muslim, as opposed to Palestinian, focus on Jerusalem is on the Temple Mount. Last summer Hussein, flying over Jerusalem from west to east as a gesture of Jordanian-Israeli friendship, circled the Mount.

Seventeen years earlier President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had gone to East Jerusalem and prayed on the Mount before addressing the Israeli parliament in West Jerusalem. Shortly after Sadat's visit, a distinguished Israeli public servant, Walter Eytan, advocated giving the Mount "to an Arab sovereign as his wholly sovereign territory." Eytan was convinced that "unfettered Muslim sovereignty" over the Mount was the only solution for the Jerusalem problem.

Does such an idea have to be at variance with practical politics? Not necessarily. There are many scenarios whereby Israel retains sovereignty over the whole city, while the Muslim holy places keep their already substantial autonomies.

A pattern for Jerusalem's future may be seen in Israel's present willingness to permit several aspects of Palestinian national activity to be directed from the city, and to allow leading members of the former enemy, the PLO, to pray on the Temple Mount and to conduct negotiations in the city.

Jerusalem both East and West could remain the capital of Israel, a shared city under Israeli sovereignty, with no internal borders. Within this city, the East Jerusalem Arabs could obtain such status and self-governing instruments, and administrative links with the Palestinian Authority, as to satisfy their desires for a capital of their own.

Today, as for the past 28 years of the reunited city, Jews and Arabs live virtually separate lives. Some points of physical contact exist: hospitals, museums, the lobbies of hotels, and an increasing number of social and charitable institutions. But this does not add up to the mixing of the communities.

West Jerusalemites rarely visit the Arab residential areas on a social basis, and vice versa. Shopping, eating out and recreation are seldom across the divide. Neither side has much idea of the daily life of the other. Perhaps in this very separation, topographical and social, may lie the best hope for the peace and prosperity of a permanently united city.

United means, in this perspective, united within the borders of Israel. For the Palestinian Arabs of East Jerusalem to live under Israeli sovereignty, as they have done since 1967, is not unlike the situation in many large cities throughout the world, where minority groups have a respected and protected place within a wider sovereign entity.

Christian Copts in Cairo, Hong Kong Chinese in Vancouver, Muslims in Delhi, Russians in Kiev and Hindus in London are among those who seek not political independence but the right to participate and contribute as equal and respected citizens. Such an approach can certainly offer a bright future for the Arabs in East Jerusalem. Given the facts on the ground, and also the very different meaning of the city to Jews and Arabs, participation and contribution may also be the best the Palestinians can achieve.


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