by Ghada Karmi
The battle over the future status of Jerusalem and control of its holy places feels as if it has been raging between Arabs and Israelis for decades, if not for centuries. The issue had come to be seen as the thorniest in a list of thorny problems to be resolved in peace negotiations. I want to show in this article that, in fact, this struggle for Jerusalem is a distortion of reality and only serves to side-step the issue that is at the heart of the conflict. Worse still, concentrating on attaining a settlement over the future status of Jerusalem, at the expense of resolving other contentious issues between the two sides, will reduce the chances for reaching an ultimate peace.
When did Jerusalem become such a heated bone of contention between Israelis and Palestinians? If indeed it had held such a seminal place in the hearts and minds of Jews, why had so few of them ever taken any interest in it before 1948? Historically, Jewish pilgrims had always traveled to Jerusalem and a small number had always resided there. But the vast majority of Jews, including those who lived in the Arab countries outside Palestine, showed little inclination to leave those places and go there before 1948. The city featured little in the thinking of the early Zionists and the majority of secular Jews. Theodor Herzl was horrified when he saw the Western Wall. Like many other early Zionists, he resolved to leave the Old City to its impoverished religious communities and concentrate on building a new city outside the walls. He never mentioned Jerusalem once in his classic study Der Judenstadt, which set the foundations for the Israeli state. Zionist proposals for the city during the 1930s and 1940s left the Old City out of the intended Jewish state, provided there was some municipal arrangement with the rest of the city. In 1946, the Jewish Agency even suggested that all of Jerusalem could be within an Arab state, in exchange for the creation of a Jewish mini-state in Palestine; and before that, the leaders of Labor Zionism were willing to accept a partition of Palestine, in 1937 (and again in 1947), which excluded Jerusalem and placed it under separate jurisdiction.
A Neglected City
The Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine in the 1920s concentrated their efforts on expanding Tel Aviv and building new Jewish settlements, and did not bother with Jerusalem at all. Religious Jews had, of course, traditionally held the city sacred and, as of the 1920s, a minority of devout Zionists, who looked towards rebuilding the Temple, joined them. The latter were openly ridiculed by the secular Zionist leadership, for whom the city scarcely featured in their public utterances or planning until 1949, when the Israelis acquired West Jerusalem. It was then that David Ben-Gurion spoke for the first time about “Jewish Jerusalem” as “the heart of the State of Israel.”
Yet, neither he nor any other Israeli prime minister until Menachem Begin had their residence in the city. And until 1967, it was a relatively neglected place, with low economic growth; some of its areas had become slums. Today, many secular Israelis prefer the more European atmosphere of Tel Aviv or Haifa. Even so, an interest in Jerusalem’s religious and historical significance for the Jewish people has grown amongst Israelis of all persuasions in the recent past and has culminated in what can only be described as an obsession. This obsession really dates from the conquest of Jerusalem’s eastern half during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was then that secular as well as religious Israelis succumbed to the symbolism of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.
As the English religious writer, Karen Armstrong, has argued in her 1996 book on Jerusalem, the passion for the Old City, which enveloped its Jewish conquerors in 1967 was a psychological phenomenon that had little to do with religious fervor. In “discovering” a physical embodiment of their historical narrative, Israelis found self-validation and an affirmation of their right to the land. Possibly also, this affirmation allowed them to put away any guilt they might have had over rival Palestinian claims. But even if one were to accept the biblical narrative about Jerusalem as valid, the logic of this position seems to be that, if a monument is deemed to be sacred or otherwise significant for a particular group, then that group has the right to physically own it.
In the years since 1967, this right to ownership has taken firm hold amongst Israelis. At the official level, a mantra has appeared, endlessly repeated by successive Israeli prime ministers, that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” Today, they vie with each other to display their commitment to this concept. The Camp David talks last summer  were said to have broken down over the issue of Jerusalem. Ehud Barak was accused of having “conceded” sovereignty over parts of the Temple Mount. In fact, the Israeli proposals were minimal: Palestinian control over some of East Jerusalem’s suburbs, administrative autonomy for some of the central areas, and control over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. The secular Barak, like all his recent predecessors, had to pay homage to the new sacred cow of Israeli politics: Jerusalem’s special status for Jews. Following in the same tradition, the incoming prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has already announced that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital forever. His house in the heart of the Muslim Quarter and his visit to the Temple Mount last September are all testimony to this now-obligatory convention.
Only a minority of Israelis concedes exclusive sovereignty to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, with some arrangement for sharing the Old City. At the same time, Arab history and the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem have been denied or systematically undermined in a multitude of direct and indirect ways. This is all the more remarkable, since the overwhelming historical architecture of Jerusalem is anything but Jewish. Mosques, madrasas, shrines, churches — even the configuration and walls of the Old City — attest to the concrete reality of a centuries-old, non-Jewish history. Likewise, and despite the ethnic cleansing that has expelled thousands of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, that part of the city remains predominantly Arab. Although rival religious sentiments are also powerful here — Muslims revere Jerusalem as the place from which Mohammad ascended to Heaven, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a commendable pious act and numerous sayings of the Prophet attest to its importance in Muslim theology; for Christians, it is the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected — the Palestinian view of Jerusalem never needed a mythology to justify it. It was not an imagined history that tied them to their city, but a consciousness of a continuous, generational, living presence on its territory. For them, as for all Arabs, Muslims and Christians — Jerusalem was self-evidently not a Jewish city.
This in part explains Arab apathy in the face of the Israeli drive to lay exclusive claim to Jerusalem. In the plethora of plans drawn up for its division since 1967, only a tiny number has emanated from Arab or Palestinian sources. Some 18 Israeli plans have been put forward to date, as against a half-dozen from Arab, Palestinian or joint Israeli-Palestinian sources. The PLO, which recognized Israel in 1988 and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, has never put forward a clear map of the borders of the Jerusalem it wants to see incorporated within it. Although a Palestinian mantra of a state on the 1967 territories with East Jerusalem as its capital has been reiterated ever since, the Palestinians have not been any more precise than that. Critics have called this insouciance inexcusable in the context of Israeli settlement in the city, manifesting itself in a steady campaign of unashamed land expropriation. But it is, in my view, more a statement of the bewilderment people feel who know a territory is theirs, but are told that it is not. They do not see the need to prove their attachment to it or justify their presence there. And they certainly cannot contemplate dividing it to accommodate the religious claims of a rival group whom they regard as occupiers.
Exploiting Religious Sentiment
Palestinians never denied the special attachment of devout Jews to certain parts of the Old City. On the contrary, for Muslim Palestinians, Jewish legends and Jewish prophets play an important part in the Quran. It is rather the use of this argument to justify the concrete Israeli expansion in the city’s territory that has preoccupied them. And indeed, the growth of Jewish settlements and the expropriation of Arab land to the point where, today, less than 13 percent of East Jerusalem is in Arab ownership, have been staggering. This creeping colonization has taken place beneath a veneer of religious pretension that has been skillfully used to bamboozle public opinion, especially in the West. Most ordinary people in Europe and the U.S. genuinely see Jerusalem as a Jewish place, but concede that other religious groups should have freedom to worship there. The talk of “sensitivity” over Jerusalem and the relegation of this issue to final-status negotiations in the Oslo process, because it is so “difficult,” is part of the same phenomenon. Although Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is the subject of UN resolutions and illegal under international law, few now seriously contest the Israeli presence there or would do anything about ending it.
All this is indicative of the success of the Israeli campaign to exploit myth and religious sentiment in order to gain physical ownership of another people’s territory. But this strategy has had another effect: it has served to alter the Palestinian view of Jerusalem and to evoke a counter strategy on the same lines. In the immediate aftermath of 1967, the Palestinians focused on Israel’s physical conquest of the city and its appropriation of their land and property. Israeli discriminatory policies towards the Palestinians, especially in housing, featured strongly as the reality of Israeli rule sank in during the following years.
In the last decade, however, a striking emphasis on Jerusalem’s religious significance, especially for Islam, has become apparent in the Palestinian discourse. It is as if the Israeli insistence on an exclusive Jewish claim to the city had reminded the Palestinians of their own equally powerful claim. Up till then, they had regarded Jerusalem’s holy status for them as unarguable, and the real bone of contention concerned Israel’s illegal practices in the city. But now, declarations about Jerusalem’s holiness, and the demand for Palestinian sovereignty over the city and its mosques, comparable to those of Israelis, were being regularly made. This was not merely reactive; it also had a political purpose.
Marginalizing the Right of Return
Danny Rubinstein, in a perceptive article (Ha’aretz, 22.12.00), noted that Arafat had adopted this approach throughout the seven years of the Oslo negotiations. He put this down, correctly in my view, to Arafat’s awareness of the international appeal of such an approach. Raising the issue of Jerusalem’s religious significance would draw more support from the Arab and Islamic worlds, if not from Western Christendom. The truth of this is borne out by the recent utterances of Arab and Islamic leaders, to the effect that Jerusalem’s holy sites are the property of the world and not for the Palestinians to give away unilaterally. This strategy has certainly succeeded in bringing Israel’s illegal take-over of the city to international attention, but it has done so at serious cost to other aspects of the Palestinian cause.
The emphasis on Jerusalem from both sides has served most successfully to marginalize the much more important issue of the right of return. Though the subject of refugees was on the agenda of the Olso agreement, for most of the last seven years, it scarcely featured at all and only came to prominence at the Camp David talks in July 2000. There, it ranked of lesser importance to the Jerusalem issue, which took center stage. This is a remarkable, if unplanned, achievement for Zionism, which strove for over fifty years to bury the memory of what had happened to bring the Jewish state into being. This mass denial of historical fact and evasion of responsibility can still be seen in the near-hysterical opposition of Israelis, recently voiced, to the prospect of a Palestinian return. For they know the truth that, at the heart of the Jewish state, there is a terrible moral flaw, which, unless corrected, will always threaten its carefully nurtured aspirations to legitimacy. Some Israelis are already bravely grappling with this reality and confronting the inevitable reckoning with the consequences of the past. The Palestinian role in this should be to help that struggle, not hinder it with an excursion up the blind alley of a religious squabble over Jerusalem.