Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is not just a holy city and religious center for the three monotheistic faiths; it is key to any political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It also remains a decisive factor in resolving the long struggle as well as the shaping of relations between Israel and the world's Muslim countries.
In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, saying, "We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don't have to talk about it anymore." Trump was assuring Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel while ignoring the most affected party – the Palestinians. The Trump administration most recently unveiled its long-awaited, so-called "peace deal" – denying Palestinians' history, identity, culture and center of worship by officially announcing that Israel will have full control over Jerusalem and that the undivided city will be Israel's capital.
For decades, most of the international community, including the U.S., has declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital until a peace deal could be reached between Israelis and Palestinians since both sides claim the city as their capital.
The issue of Jerusalem is also, inevitably, an issue of faith – and, specifically, about control of some of the holiest sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews. This illegal deal has put Trump squarely in the middle of the decadeslong conflict over Jerusalem, threatening to revive the agony and controversy in the Muslim world, which considers the Al-Aqsa compound its third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, as well as with the Christians and the international community that do not recognize Israel's jurisdiction over this territory.
Much of the population in Jerusalem's Old City is Palestinian, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the entire area Muslims call Haram al-Sharif is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf – a Muslim religious organization overseen by the Jordanian government that handles security and exercises considerable authority over the area.
Now it has become clear that this deal is completely biased and pro-Israel, denying all Palestinian, religious and national rights in spite of all previous agreements and international laws, especially on the issue of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their future capital.
On Nov. 29, 2012, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) overwhelmingly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member state in the U.N. based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The vote took place 65 years after the historic UNGA Partition Resolution 181, calling for the establishment of "a Jewish and an Arab state," with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum (separated body) under an international regime.
If any legitimate two-state solution is not realized in the near future, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, there is a great danger that the conflict will be converted from a national-political one between Palestinians and Israelis into a religious conflict that will be much more difficult, if not impossible to resolve.
It should be understood that no Palestinian leader will sign any agreement with Israel to resolve the conflict and create a Palestinian state without its capital in Arab East Jerusalem, in accordance with the pre-1967 borders, with broad access to the rest of the state.
Israeli policy in East Jerusalem
After seizing the West Bank in 1967, Israel unilaterally annexed 72 square kilometers, including the eastern part of Jerusalem and 28 surrounding West Bank villages, to the Jerusalem municipality. This area, commonly called East Jerusalem, had 66,000 Palestinian residents – 24% of the new municipality's population. Whereas Israeli military orders apply to the rest of the occupied West Bank, Israel applies its own civil laws to East Jerusalem.
Israel has since transferred thousands of its own Jewish citizens to East Jerusalem, a war crime under international law, while refusing to approve most zoning plans in Palestinian neighborhoods that would allow expansion.
After completing a ring of settlements around Palestinian East Jerusalem, settlement activities have extended to the infiltration of Palestinian neighborhoods, encircling them with the Jewish population. Settler activities in the Old City have also expanded beyond the Jewish Quarter. A new wave of takeovers of Palestinian homes by false measures, forged documents or as absentee properties, turning them into Jewish property, has continued unabated.
Since 2000, Israel has been actively working to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem and the Old City, thus posing a great threat to the Palestinian presence in these areas and also undermining the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on Jerusalem.
On May 5, 2009, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced an updated master plan for Jerusalem for the period until 2020. The master plan represents a powerful tool of control of the "demographic balance" between the Palestinian and Israeli populations in Jerusalem.
One of the main objectives of the Jerusalem Master Plan is to isolate Palestinian neighborhoods from each other and increase the Israeli/Jewish population in the city through selective zoning priorities and construction plans, to ensure Israeli sovereignty over the two parts of the city, both west and East Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel.
Since 1967, Palestinians have had difficulties registering or using their privately-owned land in extended Jerusalem due to procedural, costly and prohibitive licensing procedures and complications, besides the Israeli Custodian of the Absentee Property Law. That law considers any Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and other Arab countries to be absentees. Their Jerusalem property is transferred to the Israeli Custodian, who in effect puts many of these properties at the disposal of Jewish settlers. This practice has dramatically limited housing possibilities for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem Palestinians living in their own city are in fact stateless. They hold an Israeli residence permit known as a "Blue ID" and a Jordanian travel document and are not citizens of either. Any absence from the city, for study, work or marriage, as well as the holding of another citizenship can lead to a withdrawal of the residency permits. Since 1967, more than 15,000 Palestinians have lost their residency right, with many more at risk of losing it.
The Jewish hegemony in East Jerusalem is the appropriation of Palestinian land through zoning and lack of building permits issued to the Palestinians. The increased number of demolished homes and the municipality's budgetary allocations between west and East Jerusalem concerning medical services, education and infrastructure investment reflect a clear discriminatory policy toward the Palestinian neighborhoods.
The archeological activities
Israel's ongoing excavations in Jerusalem pose an imminent threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the residents of the holy city. These digs under the foundations of the compound have continued for the past 15 years.
Last year Israeli officials opened a tunnel under the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, with the attendance of U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.
The Israeli excavations have caused cracks in the chapel of women and the building of the Awqaf Department and the southern and western walls of the Al-Aqsa compound as well as the walls of Al-Ashrafieh school, located inside the compound.
In July 2017, UNESCO adopted a resolution that denounced Israel's failure to "cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works, projects and other illegal practices in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law." The resolution further added that "all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the "basic law" on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith."
Israel, for its part, refuses to allow UNESCO access to examine the holy sites in East Jerusalem. Most of the archeological activities in the Old City of Jerusalem are tied to the political conflict in Jerusalem, focusing on the past and instrumentalizing history for one particular group, and excavations are usually carried out with resultant damage to the local Palestinian population.
Several U.N. Security Council Resolutions have called on Israel to refrain from any legislative and administrative acts aimed at changing the status and image of Jerusalem, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, and have nullified the previous actions and measures (SC resolutions 252, 267, 298 and 476). In particular, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) has censored in the strongest terms the enactment by Israel of the "basic law" on Jerusalem, tantamount to the annexation of East Jerusalem (SC resolution 478).
Moreover, in the context of its previous relevant resolutions, the UNSC considered the decision by the Israeli government on June 21, 1998, to take steps to broaden the jurisdiction and planning boundaries of Jerusalem a serious and damaging development.
The UNSC, therefore, called upon the Israeli government not to proceed with that decision and also not to take any other steps which would prejudice the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.
Furthermore, the UNSC also admonished Israel to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of Aug. 12, 1949 (SC President Statement on behalf of the Council – 1998).
Secondly, the UNSC has sharply criticized acts of desecration of Muslim places of worship, especially the profanation of the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque on Sept. 28, 2000, considering it a deliberate provocation to Palestinians (SC resolutions 271, 298, 1322). Thirdly, it has condemned acts of the Israeli state violence against Palestinian worshippers and Palestinians in general, especially those perpetrated by Israeli security forces (SC resolutions 672, 1322).
UNSC has called for the immediate cessation and reversal of all acts which have resulted in the aggravation of the situation and have had negative implications for the Middle East peace process (SC resolution 1073). However, Israel has consistently declined to act in accordance with international law by constructing new settlements, building a separation wall, creating divisions within East Jerusalem, disposing of Palestinian homes and properties and implementing restrictions on access to places of worship. Therefore, to face Trump's deal, the Muslim world and the international community must take concrete actions to address the issue of Jerusalem with the urgency it deserves.
Jerusalem is at the core of any serious attempt to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to foster peace and stability in the entire Middle East. The Palestinian rejection of aggressive Trump's plan was declared and confirmed. The city of Jerusalem will always be the Palestinians' pillar in any future solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their resistance, persistence and challenge to Israel's ambitions will remain one of the most striking phenomena of the current era.
* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers