The announcement by Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has ignited deep sensitivities around the Middle East. The city that is holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 70 years.
Even as the peace process saw progress on most issues, Jerusalem has remained the most contested part of the great dispute.
The stature of Jerusalem to the Abrahamic religions cannot be understated. It hosts the holiest site of Judaism, the third holiest site of Islam, and some of the holiest sites of Christianity.
A bit of history
In 1947, when the United Nations crafted a partition plan for the British Mandate of Palestine, it sought to divide the region into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem in the middle as a corpus separatum, which meant the city would have a distinct international regime. The partition plan also provided a blueprint for an economic union.
Arab countries rejected the partition plan. The British unilaterally withdrew from Palestine in 1948, which allowed the Zionist movement to proclaim its long-cherished dream of a State of Israel in the centuries-old Arab inhabited land of Palestine -- which Jews believe to be their ancestral homeland.
Arab countries went to war with the new Jewish-ruled state in 1948, which resulted in Israel gaining control of West Jerusalem and Jordan taking authority of East Jerusalem, including the sacred religious sites. East Jerusalem and the West Bank remained under Jordanian administration until 1967.
Over the years, Israel emerged as one of the exceptions to authoritarian states in the Middle East. It has built a free market and high tech economy with a democratic political system. The Six Day War in 1967 saw Israel defeating Arab forces and taking control of the West Bank.
In 1980, Israel annexed East Jerusalem as part of constitutional amendments that declared a “complete and united” Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, with the seats of the presidency, parliament, and Supreme Court.
Instead of allowing sensitivities to flourish and be exploited, the international community and regional actors need to step up to the plate and fix the peace process
The United Nations Security Council deemed the annexation illegal under international law. As a result, all countries have their embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv. Israel has shut down the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Jerusalem. The construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is currently treated under international law as part of the Israeli occupation.
As the Palestinian national movement gained traction in the 1980s, East Jerusalem became the centrepiece in the struggle for emancipation from the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Oslo Accord in 1993 established a Palestinian Authority for self-governance in the Arab hinterlands, even as Israeli military controls and settlement-building continued. Efforts by successive American administrations, such as the Camp David summit hosted by Bill Clinton, failed to bring any resolution to the status over Jerusalem.
The way to guarantee peace
As a final peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained elusive, periodic bouts of violence and military operations have erupted, including the second Intifada, terrorism, and the Israeli wars in Gaza.
Israel’s settlement construction has persisted. The West Bank barrier wall has been one of the main features of the Israeli government’s efforts to restrict freedom of movement for Palestinians. The level of Israeli restrictions on Palestinians is now often described as apartheid.
The peace process has focused on finding a two-state solution to the conflict. A one state solution, in which one secular democratic state would be inclusive of Israelis and Palestinians, has been dismissed to be unrealistic at this stage due to strong Jewish and Palestinian nationalism.
The two-state solution has been described as the “only way to guarantee peace” by Antonio Guterres, the incumbent secretary-general of the UN.
But for a two-state solution to be possible, a sustainable and democratic Palestinian government needs to be established.
The Fatah-Hamas split in 2007 caused the Palestinian Authority to be divided in the administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The situation of the Palestinian economy remains a far cry from that of neighbouring Israel or Jordan.
The international community needs to pour in resources to help establish a viable Palestinian state. A multi-national peacekeeping force could be deployed to ensure security and stability in a de-militarised Palestinian zone.
The freedom of mobility and economic activity of Palestinians needs to be restored not only within the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Israel.
The Palestinians can also offer citizenship to Jewish settlers in the West Bank as part of an egalitarian Palestinian state. Ultimately, an economic union would cement the prospects for a lasting peace.
Jerusalem is perhaps the most contentious final status issue. Can a city be the capital of two states? The world has to look for solutions.
In provincial India, Le Corbusier’s planned city of Chandigarh serves as the capital of the two Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. Can Jerusalem be the shared capital of Israel and Palestine? What form of authority and sovereignty would be placed on the holy sites? Can there be a special international regime involving both Israel and Palestine for the Old City of Jerusalem?
To take a cue from Bob Dylan’s famous song during the 1960s American civil rights movement, a reasonable solution for Jerusalem is “blowin’ in the wind” -- Jerusalem is more than just a city, it is a focal point and a rallying cry for the spiritual from around the world.
Its stature transcends the boundaries of Israel and Palestine. But instead of allowing sensitivities to flourish and be exploited, the international community and regional actors need to step up to the plate and fix the peace process.
Umran Chowdhury is a student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.