Jerusalem's centrality to the three monotheistic faiths - Islam, Judaism and Christianity - lent the city its uniqueness, but also made it the focus of strife throughout history. Jerusalem, today, remains an issue of contention that is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since their occupation and unilateral annexation in 1967 of the Arab eastern part of Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities have been exploiting their position of control in the city in order to change its image and encourage its Judaization. Successive Israeli governments adopted this policy, which is underpinned by a twofold objective: to increase the Jewish population and to concurrently diminish the number of the Palestinian inhabitants. Jewish settlements were thus built within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and around it; these are being continuously expanded and increased, undermining any prospects for compromise over the city. From zero on the eve of the 1967 war, the number of residents in these so-called Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem has risen to approximately 180,000.
In parallel, stringent restrictions are imposed on Palestinian building and expansion in the city. Since the 1967 Israeli takeover, the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem have been given the status of "temporary residents," based on the Law of Entry into Israel. The Israeli authorities have used this law to bolster and justify their revocation of the residency rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites. Thousands have thus been forced out of the city in what can only be termed as ethnic cleansing. Yet, despite these practices, the Palestinian population, estimated at 230,000, remains the majority in East Jerusalem.
From an international legal standpoint, Israel is considered an occupying power in Jerusalem, and, with the exception of Costa Rica and San Salvador, the international community does not recognize the city as Israel's capital. Nonetheless, Israelis consider Jerusalem as the "eternal, united capital of the Jewish people." Palestinians, for their part, claim al-Quds al-Sharif as the capital of the future Palestinian state - an emotionally charged issue that fences each side within its stated declarations.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak was the first Israeli leader to acknowledge the fact that Jerusalem had to be shared. But when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Camp David summit (July 2000) came down to the crux of the matter, the talks stumbled. The Israelis asked for sovereignty over areas in East Jerusalem that would, in effect, fragment the Palestinian neighborhoods and keep them under siege. They additionally called for the annexation to the city of large Jewish settlements. If implemented, this would reduce the Palestinian neighborhoods to mere spots within a huge Jewish sea, and would block any territorial contiguity and access between the Arab part of the city and the Palestinian Authority areas slated to become the future Palestinian state.
While the Palestinians showed readiness to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter and the Western (Wailing) Wall complex in the Old City, this was perceived as quite insufficient by the Israeli negotiators. Barak raised the issue of al-Aqsa Mosque and proposed it be shared between Muslims and Jews, but that it remain under Israeli sovereignty. Since the 1967 occupation, the Mosque has always been de facto under Jordanian and Palestinian control. The Israeli demand for exclusive sovereignty over the site in a permanent settlement - a sovereignty that Israel has so far been unable to impose or practice - is a highly explosive matter that threatens to turn a basically Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a Jewish-Muslim conflict.
Admittedly, Barak made a positive step forward. From an Israeli perspective, it was even a huge and "unprecedented" one. From a Palestinian viewpoint, however, the step fell short of what could be construed as the acceptable minimum that would enable the Palestinian negotiators to sell the deal to their constituency and to Arab and Muslim public opinion. Jerusalem is the private property of neither Yasser Arafat nor of the Palestinian people; it has its Arab as well as Muslim-Christian dimensions. The Israeli inability to appreciate Palestinian needs and delicate position blocked the way towards any genuine breakthrough.
Sharing Jerusalem is the only way out of the present crisis. West Jerusalem can be the capital of Israel; East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, and each state can exercise control over its respective holy shrines. The city must have two separate political sovereignties yet remain physically united. It might thus become a model of coexistence and cooperation between the two states.
In 1995, the Palestine-Israel Journal published an issue also focused on Jerusalem; it had for its title "Our Jerusalem." This statement is as valid today as ever. Palestinians and Israelis need a solution that will enable them to share on an equal footing the city both peoples prize and that they can call "our Jerusalem." It is only through tolerance, sharing, and mutual recognition and respect that an equitable solution to the issue of Jerusalem can be attained.