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Jerusalem: The Key to Peace

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Long the site of pilgrimages and wars, the Holy City of Jerusalem is one of the most ancient cities in the world. A city holy for the three monotheistic religions, Al-Quds Al-Sharif is the first qiblah and third of the Holy Sanctuaries, from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended on his divine night journey; the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the burial place of Jesus Christ; and site of the Wailing (Western) Wall. While it is historically and religiously significant for the international community, the  Holy City is of central importance to the Palestinian people and the Arab and Islamic worlds. Jerusalem is the crux of the question of Palestine and the key to war and peace in the region.

With the exception of brief Crusader rule (1099-1187), Jerusalem was under Muslim rule from 638 to 1917. The biggest city in Palestine , Jerusalem was also its political, economic, and cultural center. From the establishment of the municipality of Jerusalem in 1863, and until 1948, all the mayors of the city were Palestinian. In 1917, the population of Palestine was composed of over 90% Palestinian Arabs and less than 10% Jews. In the decades that followed the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate over Palestine , Jewish immigration to Palestine intensified and the Jewish population in Jerusalem increased dramatically.

On 29 November 1947 , the General Assembly, in exercise of its authority towards Palestine as one of the areas under the mandate system of the League of Nations , adopted resolution 181 (II), commonly referred to as the "partition plan". This resolution partitioned mandated Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, and Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, or an internationalized enclave in the Arab state, under the aegis of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations.

However, as a result of the war of 1948, the plan was never implemented and the city was subject to a de facto division. By the time a truce was established, Israel controlled vast areas allotted to the Arab state as well as the western sector of Jerusalem , which had been part of the internationalized area. Of the 41 villages surrounding West Jerusalem , 37 were destroyed by the Israelis. More than 80,000 Palestinians were driven out of or fled from that area, while East Jerusalem , which included the holy places, came under Jordanian administration. Despite these developments, the United Nations continued its efforts to internationalize Jerusalem , and the principle of a corpus separatum was for years reaffirmed in resolutions of the General Assembly and other United Nations organs.

At the same time, in contradiction to those efforts, and despite commitments made by Israel during its application for membership at the United Nations with regard to implementation of General Assembly resolutions 181 (II) and 194 (III), Israel undertook immediate actions to change the status quo of Jerusalem. In September 1948, Israel established its Supreme Court in Jerusalem and the Israeli parliament (Knesset) was assembled there in 1949. On 23 January 1950 , the Knesset declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel , and by 1951 many Israeli ministries had moved to the city. No nation, however, recognized Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem .

With the outbreak of the 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the walled old city with its religious sites, as well as the rest of the West Bank , the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan and the Egyptian Sinai. Immediately thereafter, Israel took numerous measures to consolidate its control over East Jerusalem and Judaize the city. It destroyed the entire Magharbi quarter in front of the Western Wall and in its place built a large plaza for Jewish worshippers. The Israeli government also expanded the municipal borders of Jerusalem to an area equivalent to ten times its original area, in a way to maximize the area of the city and minimize its Palestinian population, and extended its laws, jurisdiction and administration to East Jerusalem . Moreover, in flagrant disregard of international opposition and law, on 30 July 1980 , the Israeli Knesset adopted the "basic law" of Jerusalem , reaffirming the de facto annexation and declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel .

Since 1967, Israel has, in a systematic manner, aimed to change the legal status, demographic composition and character of Occupied East Jerusalem through the implementation of a comprehensive and integrated policy targeting the artificial creation of a Jewish majority in the city through the confiscation of land, the intensification of settlement construction and the transfer of settlers into the city. This policy has in turn aimed at decreasing the existence of Palestinians in Jerusalem by making life harsher for them by all means and in all areas of life.

Through the Israeli Expropriation Bill of 1968, 85.6% of the land annexed in Occupied East Jerusalem and its surrounding villages was confiscated from its private Palestinian owners. 44% of the land was deemed "green areas", on which it is forbidden to build, and 42.5% was used to build and expand Jewish settlements. The locations of these settlements form a ring around East Jerusalem , encircling it from the north, south, east and west. This ring of settlements has served to isolate the city from the West Bank and also constricts Arab neighborhoods in ways preventing any further expansion and growth.

Of course, the building of settlements in Jerusalem correlates to the rise of the Jewish population in the city. While there were no Jews living amongst the 62,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem prior to 1967, the Jewish settler population today totals approximately 187,000. The majority of the Jews live in surrounding settlements, which are built to isolate the 360,000 Palestinians and cut off Palestinian neighborhoods and surrounding villages from East Jerusalem . Within the original boundaries of East Jerusalem , the overwhelming majority remains Palestinian.

The Israeli authorities have also persisted in their attempts to deprive Palestinians of Jerusalem from their natural and inherited right to live in the city of their ancestors. From the very start, Israel has considered Palestinian Jerusalemites as foreigners and issued them special identity cards, labeling them "permanent residents". Over the years, Israel has implemented a matrix of policies designed to drive the Palestinian population from the city and create a Jewish majority, thereby establishing irreversible facts in the city and allowing Israel to ensure and maintain exclusive control.  Some of these policies include, revoking hundreds of identity cards from Palestinian Jerusalemites. The ID cards of 6,500 Palestinian Jerusalemites have been revoked since 1967, a figure that does not include the dependents of those who had their ID cards revoked. Further, the Israeli government has instituted strict housing quotas against Palestinians in Jerusalem to make it nearly impossible r Palestinians to obtain building permits. It is estimated that some one-third of the buildings in East Jerusalem were built without permits and are thus ‘illegal’ under Israeli law, and that four out of every five houses built each year are illegal. This so-called illegal construction provides Israeli municipal authorities in Jerusalem with a pretext to demolish Palestinian homes. More than 750 Palestinians houses were demolished between 1994 and 2006 alone. These are just two of the elements of a slow eviction campaign, which has recently intensified, aimed at forcing Palestinians to leave the city.

In addition to the geographic and demographic attacks on Arab East Jerusalem, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the city's social and economic development. Since 1994, a strict closure has been imposed as part of the Israeli effort to isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to severely curtail the entry of Palestinians into the city. Moreover, Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem have been negatively infringed on by severe Israeli restrictions. In 2001, the Prime Minister Areil Sharon ordered the closure of Palestinian institutions, which still remain closed and occupied. It represents an assault on Palestinian national dignity and Palestinian rights in Jerusalem .  Furthermore, this Israeli action denotes a reversal by force of an important part of the agreements reached between the two sides during the Oslo period and a flagrant violation of the explicit commitment made in a letter from the Foreign Minister of Israel to the Foreign Minister of Norway dated 11 October 1993, with regard to Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem.

In this same connection, since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israeli authorities have been denying Palestinian men and women aged 18  to 40 from access to the city, despite the fact that East Jerusalem is the economic, cultural and religious center of the Palestinian people. The denial of access to East Jerusalem is further proof of the unlawful Israeli practices taken against the Palestinian people in ther own homeland. 

Sadly, the holy places of Jerusalem which are protected by UNESCO as Cultural Heritage sites have not gone unharmed either throughout the decades of Israeli occupation of the Holy City . The occupying authorities, as well as armed settlers, have at various times attacked the sanctity of the holy places, particularly Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which has been the site of violent acts that have resulted in the loss of life for many Muslim worshippers and damage to Islamic structures, including Al-Aqsa Mosque. Since 1967, there have been numerous appeals to the international community for the protection of the holy places, yet the Israelis continue to pursue illegal actions and excavations in Jerusalem, endangering the sanctity, integrity and the foundations of many religious sites, the of which was the opening of a tunnel adjacent to Al-Haram Al-Sharif in September 1996; and recently, the demolition of a historical road near the Mughariba Gate and excavations below the Holy al-Aqsa Compound continued in February 2007.  This is particularly dangerous because these excavations deteriorate the structural integrity of the Holy Places, and risk the collapse of the historical mosque.

As was noted above, Israel ’s building of illegal settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem has continued unabated.  In this regard, on 24 April 1997, the 10th Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the General Assembly was called under Resolution 377 (v). “Uniting for peace” due to the failure of the Security Council to address the construction of a new settlement in Jabal Abu Ghneim to the south of East Jerusalem, as well as other illegal Israeli actions in Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory due to a two consecutive negative votes by one permanent member. The tenth emergency special session was convened, for the first time in fifteen years, to consider "Illegal Israeli actions in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory ".

The session, which was resumed four times following that initial meeting, overwhelmingly adopted five strong resolutions (ES-10/2 of 25 April 1997; ES-10/3 of 15 July 1997; ES-10/4 of 13 November 1997; ES-10/5 of 17 March 1998; and ES-10/6 of 9 February 1999) condemning Israel's construction at Jabal Abu Ghneim and all other illegal Israeli actions in the occupied territories and reaffirming the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem. Further, the resolutions reaffirmed that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel , which have altered or purported to alter the character, legal status and demographic composition of Jerusalem are null and void and have no validity whatsoever. As it has done with regard to countless Security Council and General Assembly resolutions over the decades, Israel has ignored those resolutions of the emergency session and has actually completed work on the infrastructure of the illegal settlement at Jabal Abu Ghneim as well as many other illegal settlements in and around East Jerusalem .

To further entrench its occupation and continue with its settlement campaign, the Government of Israel took a decision in 2002 to build a Wall, which deviated from the Green Line.    The Wall particularly weaves around illegal settlements connecting them to Jerusalem , while dividing the Palestinian neighborhoods away from Jerusalem attempting once again to Judaize the city.  The issue of the Wall was brought before the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial organ in the world, and despite the 9 July 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, which calls for the Wall to be destroyed and proper reparations be made to those who were affected and return confiscated lands back to their respective owners, the Wall continues to be built in and around East Jerusalem.

In 2007, the Israeli government took the decision to continue building settlements in the heart of Occupied East Jerusalem in Ras Al-Amud and the decision to build a new settlement in Jabal Abu Ghneim to the south of the city.  The settlements in Jabal Abu Ghneim, “Harhoma”, and Beit Haninia, “Pisgat Zev” isolate East Jerusalem from the southern and northern parts of the West Bank, as well as isolating Jerusalem as a whole from the cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah. The announcements of further settlement building and expansion continue to be made frequently by the Government of Israel  and remains one of the major obstacles to achieving peace between the two sides.

All of the above-mentioned actions by Israel have been committed in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the Hague Regulations of 1907 and in blatant defiance of relevant Security Council resolutions. In twenty-eight of those resolutions, the Security Council affirmed the applicability of the Convention to all the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, and repeatedly declared that all of the measures and arrangements taken by Israel, including the legislative and administrative ones, aimed at changing the legal status of the city are null and void and without any legal validity whatsoever. The resolutions have also condemned Israel 's attempts to change the character of the city and its demographic composition and pronounced that the "basic law" of Jerusalem constitutes a violation of international law and should be rescinded. No nation has ever recognized the annexation or the sovereignty of Israel over East Jerusalem with the exception of Costa Rica and El Salvador , who had previously maintained their embassies there until 2006.

With the onset of the Middle East peace process, new hope had arisen for a peaceful and just solution for Jerusalem . The Palestinian and Israeli sides agreed to negotiate the issue of Jerusalem , however, due to the sensitivity and complexity of the issue, negotiations were postponed until the second stage of the process, as outlined in the Declaration of Principles of 1993.  In July 2000, a Summit was held under the auspices of the President Bill Clinton at Camp David in hopes of finalizing an agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Unfortunately, the summit failed to produce an agreement and talks commenced in Taba , Egypt in December 2000.   It is important to note, that during the “peace process” from 1993 up until  2000 the number of settlers increased by 50% from 250,000 to 500,000; approximately 80% of settlers live within a 25 kilometers radius from Jerusalem in Bethlehem and Ramallah governorates.  In addition, since 1993 in East Jerusalem , the settler population has risen from 150,000 to 190,000.

The Israeli government continues to expand the illegal settlements despite the international community’s refusal of recognizing Israel ’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem or the facts Israel attempts to create on the ground.  There are approximately 1 ½ busloads of settlers continuing to be transferred daily in an effort to alter the demographic composition of the Occupied Palestinian Territory .

After a seven year freeze of peace talks, an international conference was held under the auspices of President George Bush at Annapolis in November 2007 to re-launch the stalled peace negotiations. The negotiations are still ongoing as there are still prevailing difficulties in negotiations, including Israel ’s persistent illegal Israeli actions in the city. Until peace is achieved, the tumultuous history of Jerusalem will continue, and until justice and peace dawn upon the Holy City, the Palestinian side has reaffirmed that it will not accept the annulment of Palestinian and Arab rights in Jerusalem and, despite all illegal Israel actions intended to create a fait accompli in the city, affirms the right of the Palestinian people to have Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the independent state of Palestine.