For some people, Jerusalem is a heavenly city that crowns their religious beliefs. For others, it’s a bitter reality, with poverty, religious and territorial issues creating deep divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Wednesday, as thousands of Israelis celebrate the fabled Golden City’s 43 years under Israeli control in a Jerusalem Day holiday, its pale stones remain the biggest stumbling block for Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators who have begun faltering proximity talks. “The status of Jerusalem is absolutely central to the peace process,” says Marshall Breger of the Catholic University of America, author of Jerusalem’s Holy Places and the Peace Process. “The situation is deteriorating, and it’s more intelligent to address the issue head on.”
The focal point of three religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — Jerusalem was meant to be an international city under a 1947 UN partition plan that preceded the state of Israel. But when Arab countries launched a massive attack in 1948, Jordan took over the Old City and East Jerusalem, until they were won back by Israel at the end of the 1967 six-day war.
Since then both Israelis and Palestinians have claimed Jerusalem as their capital, and the struggle has become more intense as Jewish settlement plans for East Jerusalem expanded and a barrier separated Jerusalem’s Palestinians from their West Bank neighbors. Some 300,000 Palestinians make up more than one-third of the city’s total population. But since 1967, Israel has expropriated more than one-third of the area that was privately owned by Arabs, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“Jerusalem is absolutely central to Palestinians, and they see it as their future capital,” says Nabil Kukali of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Beit Sahour. “It has religious as well as territorial significance.”
But many Israelis – at least 70 per cent in some polls – believe otherwise. They see Jerusalem as a single, indivisible Jewish capital.
“The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem is simply weak,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. “There is no Palestinian state and dividing the city makes no sense.” Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims believe Jerusalem is indispensable. And it is the birthplace of their religion. But, says Bernard Wasserstein of University of Chicago, author of Divided Jerusalem, since 1967, there has been “enormous messianic fervor” around Jerusalem, and religion and nationalism have meshed to a dangerous degree.
To untangle the perplexing knot of Jerusalem’s status, a group of former Canadian and U.S. diplomats, backed by Ottawa, recently tabled a report proposing a “special regime.” With the agreement of Israelis and Palestinians, a “third party” could help administer and manage the Old City: something Israel has so far resisted.
“This regime would operate within the framework of a two-state solution and allow both states to claim Jerusalem as their capital,” says a Foreign Affairs article co-authored by Michael Bell of University of Windsor, co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative. “(The Old City) is too small, too densely populated, too architecturally linked, and the Israelis and Palestinians are too riven by systemic distrust for them to govern (it) alone.”
Breger, a member of the project, says a solution is urgent. “The prevailing view was to put off Jerusalem to the end (in peace talks). But because of the settlement (expansion) it has changed in a way that ignites not just national but religious concerns. Putting off Jerusalem to the last may well mean there will be no resolution.” In the meantime, the civil rights centre says in a new report, Jerusalem remains starkly divided, with the Palestinian population “in social and economic collapse.”
While 65 per cent of Palestinian families in Jerusalem live below the poverty line, it says, “a large majority do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.”