Jerusalem: A city on edge

Is there a place on earth with borders and real estate so highly contested? By Saeed Rahnema.
By: /
November 11, 2014

Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

With recent violent unrest, Jerusalem is once again in turmoil. It is a most amazing and craziest city in the world. In the labyrinthine bazaars of the old city in East Jerusalem, ultra-orthodox Jews with their long, braided hairs hurriedly pass by the fully veiled Muslim women, while some Christians carry a large cross on their shoulders to experience the sufferings of Jesus. It is a city of contrasts and contradictions.

The old city of Jerusalem is the singularly most contested city in human history. Early pagans built their monuments there. Then came the Jews, twice building their temple on the same location, only to be ruined by Babylonians and then Romans. At the dawn of Christianity, Christ challenged the Roman authorities and was crucified there, and later Christians built the holy Church of Sepulcher close to the ruins of the temple. With the emergence of Islam, Prophet Mohammad is believed to have used the location for his night journey to heaven. Then Arab Muslims came and built the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque on top of the compound that Jews call Temple Mount, and named it the Noble Sanctuary.

Why all the wise prophets chose this location originally is beside the point. What is important is that claims placed on this most historical real estate, have lead to so many wars, crusades, and occupations.

After the first Arab-Israeli war and the creation of Israel in 1948, the armistice line cut through the city. The West became part of Israel, and the East was occupied by Jordan, each expanding the borderline of the city. In the six-day war in 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, unified the city and declared it the Jewish Capital, and later annexed it. The UN Security Council through three resolutions (UNSC 252 in 1968, and 476, and 478 in 1980) declared the decisions as “invalid,” “null and void,” and “censored” “the occupying power” [Israel] “in the strongest terms.” (The first resolution was ratified by 13 of the 15 Security Council member countries and abstained by U.S. and Canada. The second and third resolutions were ratified by 14 members, with only U.S. alone abstaining.) No country did recognize the unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital either, well except Costa Rica, and all embassies are in Tel Aviv.

Israel followed a two-pronged policy towards Jerusalem; one dealing with territorial change, and the other with population change, each with multiple points.

Territorially, Israel enlarged further the borderline of the city, particularly on the eastern side that included a large chunk of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Today’s Jerusalem is almost four times the original size before the creation of the state of Israel. Another aspect of the territorial change was to enclose the enlarged Jerusalem from the West Bank. This was done, and is being done, through a long and continuous process of surrounding it with large Jewish settlements inside the West Bank.

As for changing the configuration of the city’s population, Israel on the one hand moved or encouraged more Jews to live in Jerusalem, and on the other hand pushed more Palestinians out of the city. New settlements were built in East Jerusalem, even inside the old city. Any Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who is deemed ‘absent’ loses his/her residency in Jerusalem and his/her property is sold to a Jewish family. Now close to 200,000 Jews live in the enlarged East Jerusalem, and their rate of population growth has now surpassed that of the Palestinians.


These policies and their steady implementation have created a volatile situation that has put the city on edge.

Although Palestinian Jerusalemites enjoy some privileges in terms of access to Israeli social welfare system, education, and particularly relative freedom of commuting between Jerusalem and the West Bank, they are outraged about the occupation and the increasing shrinkage of their space.

The policies have also rendered impossible the Palestinian demand for the establishment of their state capital in East Jerusalem. And this is the biggest hurdle in a genuine peace process.

Of all complex issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from land and border, the refugees and right of return, to water distribution, Jerusalem is the most contentious. The right-wing Israelis insist on the inseparability of the city as the Jewish capital, and the Palestinians want their capital on the East part of the city, and insist that they cannot give up Jerusalem because it is Islam’s third holiest city.

Yasser Arafat’s statement during the tough negotiations of the Camp David II in 2000 pointed to this fact. In response to Bill Clinton’s insistence to accept “custodianship” (not sovereignty) over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, Arafat responded, “Mr. President, do you want to come to my funeral?” pointing to the importance of Jerusalem to millions of Muslims.

The custodianship of the compound from the inception of Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem remained under Jordan’s Waqf Authority. Even now the whole administration of the compound, including the permission of entry, is with Jordanian Waqf. The security outside the gates of the compound is with Israeli police. Many of the houses close to the Damascus Gate outside of the Old City are also owned by the Waqf authority that collects rent from the Palestinian occupants. The Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority did not change this situation, and the 1994 Peace Agreement between Israel and Jordan reinforced Jordanian control over the shrines. (Jordanian government reaction to the recent turmoil and withdrawal of their ambassador from Israel should be seen in this regard.) The Camp David II agreement just wanted to transfer the custodianship of the compound from Jordan to Palestinians.

Without a serious compromise on the question of Jerusalem, there will be no peace, and we will continue to witness outbursts like the current turmoil in the city.

The closest the two sides got together on this issue, was the Taba Summit in 2001, where both sides agreed on the idea of Jerusalem as an open city, having a Jewish section in the West (Yerushlaim) to be capital of Israel, and a Palestinian section in the East (Al-Quds) to be capital of Palestine. Although this agreement left many unresolved issue, and had many weaknesses, particularly in relation to the territories left for Palestinians in the West Bank (like all other peace negotiations Palestinians were not supposed to have a continuous territory and their cities had to be surrounded by Jewish settlements), Taba Summit represented an important progress in relation to Jerusalem and the refugee question. But when Ehud Barak’s government fell, he wrote to the U.S. President that what he had agreed in Camp David and Taba are not binding on the new Israeli government (of Ariel Sharon). Another important moment was lost.

Jerusalem will continue to be on edge so far as there is no genuine peace, and we will witness more serious confrontations, increased radicalization on both sides and sad consequences. A major part of any peace agreement has to deal with the fate of Jerusalem and how the city would be shared as capital of the two states.

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