It is the focal point of tensions in the Middle East and draws international attention far out of proportion to its physical size. Every small incident in the city of Jerusalem has the potential to ignite a major war in the region and the delicate balance between the different populations is easily disrupted.
Tourists and pilgrims flock to the city – home to sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – often amid tensions. The city is at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its Old City, where the holy sites are most concentrated, serves as a microcosm of the whole conflict.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound/Temple Mount, the third holiest site for Muslims and the holiest for Jews, is situated adjacent and above the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Mideast war 55 years ago. Israel subsequently annexed the area, receiving no international recognition for the move. While its sovereignty over the western part of the city is more widely accepted, the Israeli insistence that Jerusalem is its “eternal and united” capital is not.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is under the administration of the Waqf, the Jordanian-run Islamic trust with which Israel coordinates its control.
In recent years, there have been accusations against Israel that it is gradually eroding the status quo in the city, an informal arrangement. Such insinuations usually ignite clashes in the city. After decades in which Israeli authorities limited Jews’ visits to the Temple Mount, and never to pray there, this policy has gradually changed in recent years, with a trickle of Jews being allowed to recite prayers there, angering many Muslims.
Exactly a year ago, clashes surrounding Israeli restrictions on access to the Al-Aqsa compound led to a war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Mixed together, it is a recipe for an eternal clash.
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled for years. But even when there was progress, Jerusalem was a sticking point that had the sides at loggerheads.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was the first leader to indicate he was willing to negotiate some sort of division of the city. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also believed to have offered Palestinians sovereignty over several Jerusalem neighborhoods, with a form of international auspices over the holy sites.
Neither possibility materialized.
Throughout the years, Israel has been ambiguous about its rule over the city.
“As long as there was a peace process, or even talk of one, Israel operated under the assumption that there is no need to invest in East Jerusalem because it would separate from it,” said Dr. Amnon Ramon, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. “This increased the neglect in many areas.”
Jews born in East Jerusalem are granted full citizenship, while Arabs are permanent residents with voting rights in municipal elections but not in Israeli national elections.
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, Arabs comprise 40% of the population in the city, most of them living in East Jerusalem. That part of the city suffers from poor infrastructure, higher crime rates and less law enforcement. The education system is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, further complicating matters.
“The Palestinians in the city are in a vacuum,” said Moein Odeh, a lawyer from East Jerusalem. “They do not want to be part of the PA because they see the bad economy there and other restrictions. On the other hand, they see themselves as part of the Palestinian people.”
The West Bank security barrier that Israel constructed in an effort to stop suicide bombers from entering the country created a new reality for Palestinians in and around Jerusalem. The barrier cut off certain areas which are within the city’s municipal boundaries and in other sections, it extended those boundaries.
“Israel has completely relinquished sovereignty in the areas outside of the barrier,” said Aryeh Eldad, a former right-wing member of Knesset. “It has become no-man’s-land which no one cares about.”
In addition, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians came to a standstill in 2014 and have not resumed since.
Both developments forced Israel to reexamine its position on the city.
In 2018, the government adopted a program aimed at “reducing the socioeconomic gaps in East Jerusalem” and promoting economic development. Over 2 billion shekels ($600 million) were allocated to the program, which included money for education, welfare and transportation.
“For most Israelis, Jerusalem is non-negotiable and Israel’s sovereignty is here to stay,” said Ramon. “There is a belief that more services and more investment in the eastern part of the city will increase Israel’s governance and strengthen Israeli sovereignty.”
The issue of sovereignty in the city has risen to the headlines yet again in the recent period. Weeks of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories culminated in the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, which was held in the Old City of Jerusalem. Thousands of Palestinians attended the funeral, waving Palestinian flags. For many Israelis, it was a symbol of the loss of power in the city.
“We are seeing this all over the country, not only in Jerusalem,” said Eldad. “But it is a symbol of Israel losing part of its Zionist fundamentals, giving up on the principle that Israel is the Jewish state and not a binational state. Jerusalem is just the place where Arab nationalist expression is radicalized.”
Had Abu Akleh’s funeral been elsewhere, it would have been unlikely to have caused such a stir or drawn such a turnout, despite the contentious circumstances of her death while covering an IDF raid in Jenin, in the West Bank.
“It’s all about the symbol of Jerusalem. None of the sides will allow themselves to lose in Jerusalem,” said Odeh. “People went to the funeral not only because of Shireen, but for an opportunity to show presence in the city.”
The decision to allow Jews to march through the Muslim Quarter in the Old City on Sunday became a source of heated debate in Israel about its hold in the city. The streets were filled with Israeli flags.
“It’s all about symbolism and showing who walks freely, controlling the city,” said Odeh.
Jerusalem is where all the elements of the protracted conflict meet.
“The religious conflict will never end,” said Eldad. “There will never be peace in Jerusalem, but there can be coexistence.”
Eldad believes improvement of quality of life, alongside increased law enforcement, will give the city the quiet it needs.
Ramon said, “Even with all the efforts to increase Israeli presence, residents of East Jerusalem feel more connected to the Palestinians. No amount of investment will make national and religious feelings disappear.”
Written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.