The Future of Jerusalem

The prospect for a peaceful future for Jerusalem lies in our understanding its history and its message, which continue to be highly contested, debated and deformed. It lies in our restoring the values of the Abrahamic faiths, rather than allowing one religion to claim exclusive rights. It lies in the capacity of our own humanity to defend its achievements, namely international governance as the means to resolve conflicts, and in our successfully separating issues of state from issues of religion, including and most importantly in Jerusalem.

In the 21st century, it should be obvious that political compromise should avoid delving into religious matters and that “[r]eligion cannot be used to justify political options.” This has been further confirmed through archeological finds in Palestine and the region and an important body of serious research offered by Palestinian theologians.

Today there is a dire need to seek a political solution and to postpone negotiations about narratives, history and religion until peace is restored and, with it, the freedom to discuss, negotiate and research freely without being blinded by fanaticism and hate.

While many models of detailed solutions to the future of Jerusalem have been proposed, a final political agreement should be based on dividing the city into two sovereign and administrative geographies, without walls, in a city open to all peoples and worshippers.

At the spiritual level, we cannot divide the message and holiness of Jerusalem to reflect our narrow view of the world. We cannot reduce God and his revelations to human dimensions. Hope comes with human beings working hard to elevate themselves to the ideals of the heavens.

The Current Situation: Reality Check

Jerusalem is often in the news, not as the city of pilgrimage and holiness, but rather as the core of what seems like an insurmountable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its regular eruptions of violence and counterviolence. A few examples of the last few months:

    • With the arrival of a new U.S. administration, Jerusalem topped the world’s diplomatic and media agendas, given that President Donald J. Trump had made a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although the U.S. Congress had adopted this decision years ago, successive presidents had deferred acting on it. Clearly, this decision runs against U.S. policy on Jerusalem, which abides by international law, at least in principle.

Jerusalem is very symbolic in international affairs and seems to reflect the tensions between the balance of power, international legitimacy and religion.

    • On December 23, 2016, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which confirmed that the settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law. It demanded that Israel cease all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, and declared that the UNSC would not recognize any changes to the June 4, 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, other than those agreed upon by the two sides. Israel responded furiously, saying that such a resolution vetoed a possible peace; that it provided excuses to Palestinians to avoid recognizing Israel’s right to exist (while the PLO had already recognized Israel almost 30 years ago); and that it condemned Israel for building “homes” in the land of Israel, denying its “eternal rights” in Jerusalem, which must be a reference to the promise to Abraham in the Bible.

This reaction tells it all. According to Israel, it has all the rights in the land, and in Jerusalem, using religion to justify political rights. The scary part is when major politicians and policies of important world powers support this logic.

    • Just a few weeks before that in October 2016, UNESCO passed a resolution on Jerusalem reaffirming the importance of Jerusalem for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It called for respecting the status quo of its religious sites, including the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock compound, the Holy Sanctuaries. The resolution criticized Israel’s excavations and actions around the compound, which endanger its existence. Israel was furious, saying the resolution denied Jewish ties to the Holy sites.

Again, a diplomatic and media hoopla erupted, with statements from heads of states and other dignitaries on the matter of Jerusalem, and political versus religious rights was again brought to the heart of world politics and media attention.

    • In September 2016, the United States approved a military aid package to Israel, a total of $38 billion over 10 years, the largest in U.S. history. The deal was at the center of a political whirlwind, with the bottom line being that it encouraged Israel to continue pursuing aggressive policies and warmongering.

Violence continues to erupt in Jerusalem too often, lately from individual Palestinians’ violent reactions to the occupation and disproportionate violence from Israel in the form of targeted killings and collective punishment of Palestinians in their occupied city.

Tensions continue to escalate in and around the city. None of it is about the holiness of Jerusalem or its universal message and the revelations of the prophets. It is all about the balance of power, about the importance of Jerusalem to arouse passions and reactions, about exclusive rights and denying it to the other, and about using Jerusalem as a geopolitical tool.

Jerusalem: Prolonged Injustice on the Ground

East and West Jerusalem suffer a most dramatic disparity between its various demographic groups, with a poverty rate of around 80% among its Palestinian population. Palestinians are not aliens in their city, yet they have no political or civil rights. They refuse to participate in the occupied city’s municipal elections under the constituency of the Israeli law — to avoid the recognition of the legitimacy of the occupation, which denies them their political rights and right to self-determination.

Since its annexation by Israel in 1967, East Jerusalem has been gradually isolated from its natural and organic extension into the West Bank. This isolation culminated in the Israeli government’s building of a concrete wall twice the height of the Berlin Wall, long and sinuous, annexing to Israel as much empty land as possible, and getting rid of as many Palestinians, Christians and Muslims as possible. This wall separated people from their agricultural lands, places of work, hospitals, schools, nurseries, cultural life and places of worship. It divided families and tore the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of the occupied territories.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face major discrimination and expulsion policies. Many Palestinian neighborhoods are subjected to limitations and restrictions on building, and are living in neglected neighborhoods in conditions belonging to the Middle Ages: run down, with lots of garbage, no pavements, densely populated and crowded, and denied adequate services regarding housing, education, employment, police security, infrastructure, economic viability, investment and growth. Most East Jerusalemites find work in Ramallah or other parts of the West Bank, crossing on a daily basis the Separation Wall and military checkpoints. Others emigrate to find suitable employment abroad. Many, especially lower-strata employees, work in Israel.

The core objective of Israel’s occupation policies in Jerusalem is to limit or to get rid of the Palestinian population, whose number, according to Israelis, are growing at an alarming rate, to almost 40% of the total population of Jerusalem. Half of the Palestinian population of the city is already excluded, either living abroad or in the West Bank, or is stuck outside the wall.

Geopolitical means are being utilized to limit the Palestinian demography — by squeezing villages into crowded residential neighborhoods and limiting direct access to Jerusalem. At the same time, Israeli measures aim to tighten its grip on the city. Such measures include:

    1.The settlement expansion is most intense in East Jerusalem and has absorbed about 320,000 settlers (a larger number than the local population). Settlements were included in settlement blocs (joining few settlements in one bloc to include also a lot of land, so to speak, for future growth). A ring of major settlements was constructed in East Jerusalem to cut Arab neighborhoods off from one another, followed by an outer ring and a middle ring. Settlers also have managed to take control of some homes in various Palestinian neighborhoods. Police and private security services paid with taxes collected from East Jerusalem heavily protect these settlers.
    2. Bypass roads and highways isolate Palestinian neighborhoods from one another and connect the settlements with Israel within its 1967 borders. In the process, these roads snake around to press Palestinian neighborhoods into crowded, highly dense areas with no room for future development. The average population density in Palestinian neighborhoods is about 18,000 persons/km2. The total amount of land left to Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including built-up areas, amount to barely 13% of the land area of East Jerusalem.
    3. Military checkpoints around East Jerusalem have become, in effect, borders controlling all exit from and entry into the city. West Bank Palestinians are denied entry into the city, except with special permits, which are not easily obtained. Married couples with one partner from the West Bank or Gaza are not allowed family unification by a law enacted over 10 years ago. Very often, these mixed families do stay in East Jerusalem but live there “illegally” from the Israeli perspective. Their children cannot be officially registered in the population registry of the Interior Ministry.
    4. ID cards: The Separation Wall has been used to exclude Arab neighborhoods and, at the same time, to include empty lands owned by Arabs within its parameters. Some families have moved back into the city to live in crowded and meager housing, especially in the Old City where density amounts to some 37,000 persons per square kilometer. Many others have no choice but to live in the neighborhoods left outside the wall. Kufr Aqab at the entrance of Ramallah has a density now of 46,400 inhabitants per square kilometer, while an Israeli settlement close by has a population density of 2,690i.

All of the above measures and more are legalized through municipal and state legislation and regulations aimed at hampering development, provision of services, job creation and issuance of building permits.

Limitations and restrictions on granting building licenses to Arabs have led to illegal construction on private property. Demolitions of unlicensed Palestinian homes is almost a daily occurrence. Nearly 20,000 homes in East Jerusalem are slated for such demolition, and many have already received such orders.

In addition, there are house raids and detentions on a regular basis, in which Israel security forces invade peoples’ homes, most often in the middle of the night, to detain youth and children for allegations such as throwing stones or resisting occupation measures of some sort. They go through inhuman incarceration and interrogation methods and, if found guilty, their family homes are often demolished as a form of punishment. In a recent Knesset hearing on the matter, it was noted that the police were acting beyond the limits of the law.

The Destruction of the Economy

The economy of East Jerusalem is being destroyed slowly but surely. In earlier times, as the capital of the areas occupied in 1967, East Jerusalem provided 30% of the Palestinian GNP; was proud of the developed trade, tourism services and healthcare facilities; and was the center of a service economy with foreign and local civil society organizations and diplomatic missions. Churches and church organizations and Muslim religious institutions also abounded.

Over the years, all economic sectors in East Jerusalem have suffered regular and dramatic regressions and now risk eventual collapse: What is left of this independent economy will be taken care of with the substantial help of discriminatory legislation and taxation.

The Right to Worship, the Right to a Narrative

Christian and Muslim holy places have suffered arson attacks by extremist Jewish settlers. Freedom of worship for Christians and Muslims is hampered, with no consequences for those responsible. Fanatic Jewish settlers often intrude into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, claiming that it is the Temple Mount. This intrusion has ignited angry reactions from Muslims. Increasing religious fervor and transforming the conflict into a religious one is not in the interest of either side.

Palestinian Christians outside the city have no access to the holy sites except during Christmas and Easter. However, since 2005, during Holy Week — a week of important celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday — the Old City has been closed by police barricades to local Christians.

The message is clear: Israel succeeded in obliterating the practice of millennia-old religious traditions in East Jerusalem. Over the last 10 years, fewer and fewer local Palestinians have been able to reach the Old City for religious celebrations — a situation that risks the gradual but eventual disappearance of their religious and cultural heritage.

The Jewish settlers’ intransigence and crimes against the local population continue with impunity as well. In the summer of 2014, a young boy of 16 from the village of Shu’fat was kidnapped by settlers, forced to drink kerosene and burnt alive in the Jerusalem Forest — once again with meager consequences. Palestinians are still demanding that the homes of these Jewish terrorists be demolished as a form of punishment similar to those regularly imposed on Palestinian families.

These descriptions are but a poor rendering of the reality of the occupation in East Jerusalem. Many crimes and grievances do not make it into the news. They may be denounced or regretted by foreign governments, but not much is done beyond that. This reality has been monitored and reported on by all major international organizations, including the European Union, the UN and others, yet the bottom line is, these measures continue unabated and in total impunity.

As I have watched and monitored these measures against people’s lives and livelihoods over the years, I strongly feel that the prophets and Jesus are still crying over Jerusalem. The message of Jerusalem to humanity remains unheeded: compassion, caring, self-sacrifice, goodness, sharing and humility. Three thousand years of revelations in this city also remain unheeded. These conditions of occupation and oppression dehumanize both the oppressed and oppressor, and none will be able to obtain real liberation. As the situation is left to fester, it will bring about more violence and extremism, with detrimental results not only locally but regionally and globally. Jerusalem remains at the center of world peace or continued religious strife.

How Has This Occupation Been Sustained for Over 50 Years?

Jerusalem, more than any other city, suffers from cultural appropriation. Many sites are appropriated as Jewish cultural sites and access is denied to Muslims and Christians. Israel justifies all its actions by claiming full ownership of the land based on “the promise of Abraham” and selective use of the Bible, confusing the State of Israel as a modern nation-state with the Israel of the Bible and the Gospels, or even the Qu’ran.

The Palestinians still cannot comprehend the smugness of Golda Meir, when she infamously said in 1969: “[T]here was no such thing as a Palestinian. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” And it is rather distressing to see it voiced by Israeli government officials of late and often vehemently supported by Christian Zionists and western political leaders.

The Israeli occupation does not differ from other occupations of this land throughout history, each occupation claiming exclusive rights to the land and to Jerusalem.

A Misreading of History

We Palestinians find ourselves stuck between the sacred historiography, with little political relevance for secular historiographies, and our situation today, which stands alone with no tie to preceding history. Both are studied as separate disciplines, for no one wishes to mix biblical studies with modern questions arising from the current conflict, and no secular historian is ready to be challenged by what is perceived as a religious discourse.

No reading of history of this country can make sense without including the people of the land and not only of the geopolitics that determined its destiny.

In Palestine, as empires come and go, the people of the land continued to go about their normal life, especially in the Palestinian countryside. When deportation and exile was enforced, it applied to a small percentage of the people while most remained.

As the people of the land survived armies and empires, they went about their daily lives without taking too much notice of the occupiers. Over the years, they were joined by soldiers and settlers who decided to stay. In many cases, pilgrims visiting the Holy Land chose to stay behind as well. This is the real story of who the broader Palestinian people are.

Without an understanding of how religion was used to shape the history of Palestine through the ages and thoroughly understanding and challenging biblical theology, the story of the Palestinians and their identity will continue to be manipulated if not eventually hijacked.

The Long Road to Peace

Palestinians in their plurality (Christians Jews and Muslims) should be seen as the people of the land. The Zionist program decided to claim Jewish rights for self-determination. Peace can only be achieved if Christian and Muslim Palestinians also realize these rights and are compensated for their losses through so many years of expulsion and dispossession.

To have peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, we need to avoid using religion for political aims. We need to move forward with a political solution whose parameters are well known and based on international legitimacy, and postpone negotiations about history, narratives and religion until after a peace agreement is concluded.

In any case, what we need most of all is for Jerusalem to live up to its real worth as a spiritual city whose message through the three Abrahamic faiths have so enriched humanity and whose shared heritage has revolutionized the world.

i According to Applied Research Institute- Jerusalem (ARIJ).