The storied importance of Jerusalem hardly needs explaining. A city steeped in antiquity, it has been conquered and re-conquered, absorbed into multiple empires and is at the centre of three major world religions. In 1922, the British were given a mandate over Palestine following the defeat of the Ottomans in World War One. Under British rule steps were taken to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine while maintaining the rights of non-Jewish communities. In 1947, the Jewish state was created with the separation of Jewish land from Palestinian land, with Jews being given 55% to Palestinian’s 45%, despite Palestinians being in the majority. The deal was rejected by Palestinians and Arab states. Israel declared its independence, and the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. Zionists prevailed and claimed more land – setting up a pattern that was to be repeated in the war of 1967. Since then, many attempts at reconciliation have been made, but they have failed to resolve the differences between the two groups, and bitterness and hatred persist on both sides. The borders of Jerusalem are a subject of great contention between Jews and Palestinians, with the question of who controls predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem being of particular importance. The Old City of Jerusalem is unique in that it is the location of holy sites sacred to three religions: the Wailing Wall, Judaism’s most sacred site; the area encompassing the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third most sacred site; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is said to house the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. In 2002, Israel began building a wall that cuts a line along the outer rim of Jerusalem, enclosing Palestinians within the West Bank and greatly restricting access to Jerusalem for many Palestinians. In Jerusalem today, over 60% of the population is Jewish, 33% is Muslim and just over 2% is Christian. The clashes, violence and contestation between Jews and Arabs that have been the hallmark of the city’s history for the last 90 years show no sign of abating.
Jerusalem, according to the Torah/Old Testament, was the capital of Israel some 3,000 years ago. Jerusalem is a city steeped in antiquity, having been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions. Conquered and re-conquered many times, Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE ushered in the period of Roman and Byzantine rule that lasted until the Muslim conquest in 636–638 CE. In the 16th century, Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. During the last decades of the 19th century, the demographics of Palestine began to change. The first clashes between Arab Muslims and Jews occurred after an increase in Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigration to Palestine that began in the 1880s. After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, the British were given a mandate over Palestine in 1922. The Mandate Era applied the principles of the Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine while maintaining the rights of non-Jewish communities. At the time of the Mandate, the population of Palestine consisted of 590,890 Muslims, 83,794 Jews, and 82,498 Christians, while the population of Jerusalem consisted of 10,600 Muslims, 31,000 Jews, and 11,663 Christians.
In 1947, the UN proposed a partition of Palestine into two states. The Jewish state was allocated 55% of the land for less than 33% of the population, and the Palestinian state was allocated 45% of the land for approximately 66% of the population. Jerusalem would become an “international city”. The Zionists accepted the partition, while Palestinians and the Arab states rejected it. On 14 May 1948, the British Mandate was terminated; Israel declared its independence, and the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. The Zionists prevailed and claimed an additional 23% of the land. Jerusalem was divided: West Jerusalem became part of Israel, while East Jerusalem came under the jurisdiction of Jordan. In the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel subsequently gained control of East Jerusalem and declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The international community has never accepted the legality of this annexation.
Since 1967, there have been numerous Arab-Israeli conflicts and numerous efforts to make peace, including the present efforts being spearheaded by President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell. The peace efforts of the past have failed to reconcile the differences between all parties, and bitterness and hatred on both sides persist. Palestinian citizens within the city maintain little interaction with municipal authorities, and services in Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem are not on par with services in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods. The borders of Jerusalem remain a topic of great contention between Jews and Palestinians, with the question of who controls East Jerusalem being a fundamental issue.
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters. It is unique in that it is sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. The Temple Mount, or Al Haram-al-Sharif, houses several holy sites revered by the three religions. The Western (Wailing) Wall, or the Kotel, which runs the length of the western side of Temple Mount, is the remaining wall of Solomon’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians. It is Judaism’s most sacred site. Al Haram-al-Sharif is the sanctuary that contains both the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and is Islam’s third most sacred site. The al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed in the 7th century over the ruins of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, while the Dome of the Rock was built over the site from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to Heaven. Just a short walk away is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, sacred to Christians because it houses both the place of Jesus’s Crucifixion and the tomb in which he was buried. Members of all three faiths from around the world travel to the Old City to visit these sites for religious observation; however, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza cannot easily get to the Temple Mount.
Starting in 2002, Israel built a separation wall that cut a line along the outer rim of Jerusalem. The wall encloses Palestinians within the West Bank and makes access to Jerusalem extremely difficult for Palestinians who are not residents of the city or who have work permits. In 2008, Jerusalem had a population of approximately 760,800, with approximately 429,000 Jews and 268,000 Arab. Religiously, 64% of the population is Jewish, 33% is Muslim, and 2.3% is Christian. Clashes, war, and contestation between Palestinians and Jews have been the hallmarks of the city’s history for ninety years and show no sign of abating or decreasing in intensity. On the contrary, the status of Jerusalem will be a key and contentious issue in future negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Compounding these immense problems facing the city in the context of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are the Jewish settlements that now extend from Jerusalem into areas of the West Bank and the question of residential construction in East Jerusalem.
These settlements have proven to be the most contentious and intractable issue between Israel and the Palestinians, and have repeatedly led to the collapse of peace discussions and the rise of violent protests over the past decade. According to the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, there are currently over 400,000 Jews in West Bank settlements with numbers growing yearly, and over 200,000 living in East Jerusalem. In 2016, the United Nations Security Council condemned Israel’s settlements and stated that they were in violation of international law and had no legal validity. The Israeli Parliament chose to ignore this and in early 2017, legalised dozens of Jewish settlements built on private land in the West Bank. In June of that year work began on the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank for 25 years.
The United States became the first country to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December of 2017, leading to widespread outcry, an upsurge of violence and further damage to a successful two-state solution. While several other countries have since followed suit, many have publicly stated that they only support West Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol. Further complications include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to annex all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.
Peace in the short term seems unattainable. Israel remains resolute that Jerusalem is to remain united as their capitol, while Palestinians have always claimed East Jerusalem as the capitol of their future state. Violence has continued to flare in the Gaza strip and tensions remain high. The United States is currently developing a peace treaty, a marked departure from Israel and Palestine’s own unsuccessful attempts to broker one and a possible new model for this city going forward.