THE FATE OF JERUSALEM
Dr. L. M. Lewis

One hundred years ago this year – in 1897 – European Jews met in Basel, Switzerland, at the first congress of the World Zionist Organization and they proclaimed a goal: to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. To Arabs living within Palestine, this Zionist movement and consequent Jewish immigration into Palestine amounted to a challenge to Arab control of the land. To the Arabs, it was a new form of European colonialism.

Fifty years ago – in 1947 – the United Nations partitioned the land of Palestine between its Jewish and Arab populations. The Jews, who constituted about one-third of the population of the British Mandate, were to receive fifty-five percent of the land. The United Nations assigned the remaining forty-five percent to the Arabs who constituted two-thirds of the population of Palestine. Neither Jews nor Arabs were to control the city of Jerusalem; it was to be governed by an international commission authorized by the United Nations. Less than a year later, the Zionists proclaimed the existence of the state of Israel in the territory granted them by the United Nations. In the ensuing war, the first of five between Israel and the Arabs, the Israelis acquired an additional twenty-two percent of the territory of Palestine. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. Each state annexed the part of the city it acquired – Israel took West Jerusalem and Jordan took East Jerusalem, but neither annexation was recognized by other states.

Thirty years ago – in 1967– by virtue of the third Arab-Israeli war, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the only portions of the original mandate of Palestine it had not acquired by the end of the 1948-1949 war. By doing so, Israel brought under its control one hundred percent of the land that had been Palestine. Jerusalem – West and East – was unified under Israeli control.

The last thirty years have been largely a process of dealing with, reacting to, and trying to change the consequences of this so-called Six-Day War. In these three decades, despite further wars, despite acts of terrorism and counter-terrorism, despite military occupation and the resistance to it, one principle has continued to be discussed, promoted, and internationally sanctioned, that is, the exchange of land for peace. This principle has been the heart of the so-called "peace process."

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 242. It called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the 1967 war in exchange for recognition of Israel’s sovereign existence by the surrounding Arab states. This principle was affirmed in Resolution 338 after the 1973 war.

For more than a quarter of a century, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remained under Israeli military occupation; they were not made part of Greater Israel (though there have always been Israelis who have insisted and continue to insist that they should be), an implicit indication that Israel would be willing to restore the territories to Arab control under the right circumstances. It seemed that, with the end of the Cold War, and in the wake of the Gulf War, those circumstances had arrived.

By virtue of the Oslo Accords (1993-1995), the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the state of Israel and undertook to coordinate security measures with Israel in order to control the cycle of violence that had persisted between Arabs and Jews. Israel agreed to transfer authority to the Palestinians, first in Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho, and later in other West Bank towns. Each side derived benefits from the Accords. The Israelis would rid themselves of the costs and burdens of military occupation in the Occupied Territories and, at the same time, gain diplomatic recognition and the prospects of economic exchange with many, if not all, of the Arab states in the region. The Palestinians, for the first time ever, would have territory that they themselves ruled, albeit only a portion of the former territory of Palestine. The transfer of authority, to be completed in stages, has proceeded in fits and starts, often behind schedule. The most recent transfer occurred in Hebron, a surrender of authority that the current Israeli government found very distasteful to carry out.

The question that haunts us today is: If the peace process was in motion, what brought it to a halt?

In order to make progress in the first place, the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to put on hold the most difficult issues that divided them. These issues wore to be the subject of "permanent status negotiations," that is, negotiations to determine the final shape of the two political systems and their shares in the control of the land over which they had fought for so long.

A list of those issues includes Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, borders, final security arrangements, relations with neighbors, and other issues of common interest, one of the most important being the control and sharing of water resources. In all of this, of course, there is a hidden question: Will Palestine be a sovereign nation-state? Will Israel accept Palestine as a sovereign state?

Negotiations concerning permanent status were to begin in May 1996, the month before the new Likud government under Benjamin Netanyahu came to power. They were to conclude, at the latest, by May 1999, in time presumably for the Jewish celebration of the 3000th anniversary of the city of David and the Christian celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. Today there is little doubt: this schedule will not be met.

Of the issues to be settled by permanent status negotiations, the item at the top of the list is Jerusalem. It is the thorniest of all the thorny issues here. To the Jews, Jerusalem is the city of peace. To the Arabs, it is al-Quds, the Holy. Ironically, the city is also the greatest stumbling block to peace Conquered more than three dozen times in its long history, this "city of peace" is filled with the symbols and monuments of the three great monotheistic religions. Today its most prominent signs are graffiti that read, in Arabic, jihad, and, in Hebrew, mavet laaravim ("death to the Arabs"). If the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews can settle the fate of Jerusalem, they can settle anything.

In theory, the Israelis are committed to negotiate the future of the city; in practice, they make no bones about their view that there is nothing to negotiate. Israel will not concede an inch of the city, much less allow it to become the capital of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians are equally passionate about the city; they have given up the idea that the Israelis must surrender it entirely, but they demand that it be under dual or shared sovereignty.

Putting off the issue of Jerusalem did not work to the advantage of the Palestinians. The Israelis, from 1967, instituted a highly visible and ambitious program of settlement and road building in and around the occupied east side of the city. This program appears to be irrefutable proof that Israel is trying to transform East Jerusalem into a ghetto cut off from its West Bank hinterland. The Arab fear is that by the time the status of the city is negotiated, the potential Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem will be dwarfed and encircled by Jewish suburbs.

Since 1967, nearly a third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government, eighty-five percent of it Arab land. Of the 35,000 apartments subsequently constructed, not one was for Jerusalem’s Arab citizens. The 1992 municipal budget, the last under the "liberal" mayor Teddy Kollek, set per capita expenditure in the Jewish sections of the city at $900, in the Arab sectors at $150.

These circumstances provide the context for the latest violent incidents between Israeli soldiers and police and Palestinian demonstrators. They underlie the story of Har Homa (known to the Arabs as Jabal Abu Ghneim.) On this forested hill to the south of the city on the way to Bethlehem, the Israeli government has begun a new Jewish :settlement," a development of 6500 housing units. After the 1967 war, the Israelis defined Jabal Abu Ghneim as within the borders of "United Jerusalem." The government expropriated the land in July 1992 for public use and initiated planning for the settlement. Appeals against this expropriation were filed by Jewish and Arab landowners and by ecologists opposed to the destruction of the ecosystem there. The Israeli Supreme Court rejected all appeals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the Israelis have a right to build on the land, since much of it was owned by Jews. The difficulty with his argument is this: it is equally true that most of West Jerusalem was built on lands that had been owned by Palestinian Arabs. Claims like his open the door to unending battles over land control.

International pressure caused the previous Labor government to freeze the Israeli settlement project at Har Homa, but the present Likud government decided in mid-1996 to resume plans for building there. In mid-February this year, the current mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, and some minor religious parties in the Likud coalition pressed Netanyahu to begin the project; one party threatened to leave his coalition if approval for it was not given within two weeks. Ministerial approval came on February 26. A Palestinian sit-in and peaceful demonstrations at the site did not prevent Israeli bulldozers from starting construction five days later. Israeli actions led to proposed United Nations Security Council resolutions denouncing Israeli settlement practices. Since the United States vetoed the resolutions, parallel action is now (late April) being considered in the General Assembly.

What are the specific issues raised by the Har Homa development? Har Homa ties within the boundaries of Jerusalem, a city whose status, under the Oslo agreements, is yet to be determined in permanent status negotiations- The building of a Jewish neighborhood in an area previously uninhabited by Jews is inconsistent with the commitment to negotiations. The project is a deliberate attempt by Israel to strengthen its hold on Jerusalem, both physically and demographically. The Arab challenge to the High Court of Justice argued that overcrowding and substandard conditions in the surrounding villages means that any development should be preserved for the Palestinian people. In the past three decades no new Arab neighborhoods have been created (due to legal restrictions imposed by Israel) while tens of thousands of dwelling units have been constructed for Israelis on expropriated land. Ecologists note, in addition, that the development of Har Homa will bring deforestation in a land that can scarcely afford it.

The matter of Har Homa/Jabal Abu Ghneim is, of course, a microcosm of the larger issue of the status of the entire city of Jerusalem. That issue is one on which the two sides are at an impasse. The Israelis, having reunified the city, insist that they will never again let it be divided, that the entire city is their eternal capital. The Palestinians insist that East Jerusalem (including the Old City) should be the site of their capital. The capital of a state that the Israelis refuse even to acknowledge as a possible outcome of the negotiations.

The continued Israeli insistence upon Jerusalem as united, eternal capital belies reality. Thirty years after reunification, there are: two distinct business and entertainment centers; separate hospitals, fire departments, and medical emergency crews; two price scales for real estate; two bus companies, running along the same routes; two electric power grids; and many other signs of division. The vast majority of Israelis (other than police and military personnel) have never set foot in Arab East Jerusalem. Arabs enter Israeli neighborhoods only to perform certain specified economic roles, and these are increasingly being taken by nationals of Third World countries who work for less pay, get less in the way of social services protection, and present less of a security risk. Arabs and Jews seldom mix socially, perhaps less often than blacks and whites in South Africa.

The question, then, is not whether Jerusalem will be divided; in all practical ways, it is divided. Its inhabitants are two peoples, who are culturally, linguistically, and religiously distinct. The question today is whether one of these peoples – the Israelis – can "create facts on the ground" sufficient to ensure their control of the city. One thing is certain: Unless Israelis and Palestinians carry out both the letter and the spirit of Oslo with respect to Jerusalem, it will never be a city that lives up to its name.

Dr. Lewis is a professor in the History Department at Eastern Kentucky University.


Home Page | Al-Hewar Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising
Copyright 1999 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more information, please
contact Al-Hewar via e-mail
at alhewar@alhewar.com