Jerusalem’s Status: To Be Determined

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank

Last week, approximately 100 American Orthodox Jews gathered in Jerusalem’s Talpiot district in conjunction with a national convention for the Orthodox Union, an American Jewish group. The choice of location was significant to them, as it was the site designated by the US for the building of a future embassy in Jerusalem. The main objective of the rally was to call for the US government to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the ‘undivided capital of Israel’. The title of the convention was also telling: Keep It One, Keep It Ours.

Despite the significant fact that there are no embassies, only consulates, in Jerusalem, most people around the world are ignorant of one detail: Jerusalem has never been officially recognized as the capital of Israel. On the contrary, most countries consider its status as yet to be determined, with Israel’s control of east Jerusalem considered a very illegal military occupation. As such, recognizing the de facto control of Israel over Jerusalem does not equate to recognizing its sovereignty over the city.

Following the 1948 War, Jerusalem was divided into two parts. East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordanian rule while west Jerusalem was captured by the Israelis. This status did not continue, when, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli forces entered east Jerusalem, occupying it by force and immediately demolishing hundreds of Palestinian homes in the Old City’s Maghrebi Quarter in order to facilitate the expansion of the Jewish Quarter. UN Resolution 242, possibly one of the most oft-quoted resolutions when discussing Middle East politics, deals with the aftermath of the 1967 War, and specifically calls for: “The withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Unfortunately, Israel has yet to comply.

The Orthodox Union rally held last week called on President-elect Barack Obama to implement ‘change’ in the Middle East by moving its embassy and executing the Jerusalem Embassy Act. In 1995, the then US Congress passed the Act, which stated that the US embassy should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. However, since then, both former Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. have suspended the relocation on a semiannual basis, clearly not willing to accept the global repercussions of such a move. On April 1, 2009, the Act will be placed in front of Obama for consideration again, leaving him with the option of further suspension or implementation of it.

Any such decision must be delayed until the final status of Jerusalem is negotiated and decided upon by the Palestinians and Israelis. For now, a decision to implement the Act would have distressing consequences. In addition to the fact that it would be flouting UN Resolution 242, it would drastically affect America’s standing in the global community. Obama has expressed over and over his desire to see international opinion of his country change for the better. He must know that such a decision would not further his cause. On the contrary, on top of the outcries he would be likely to receive from Arab and Muslim countries, this highly controversial step would further alienate the EU, and essentially every ally he is counting on for support in the future he is attempting to restructure.

The EU itself has recently stepped on Israel’s toes, speaking openly of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the continuing Israeli blockade, and against the increase in home demolitions as well as the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements. Most recently, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz leaked the contents of an EU paper up for discussion in Brussels when the EU’s foreign ministers meet in the second week of December. Israeli newspapers and institutions were quick to disparage ‘The EU Action Strategy for Peace in the Middle East: The Way Forward’. The Jewish Newswire claimed it exposed the EU’s attempt to “shoulder its way into playing a more important role in the global effort to establish a new Muslim Arab state on historically Jewish lands, [and] is reportedly poised to unveil its latest plan for achieving this unprecedented act of state land theft.”

Israelis’ acerbic reaction to the paper was caused by, amongst other things, its call for increased pressure on Israel to reopen Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, specifically mentioning the Orient House, formerly the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in the city before Israel closed it down. The plan states that, “A key part of building the Palestinian state involves resolving the status of Jerusalem, as the future capital of two states. [Therefore] the EU will work actively towards the re-opening of the Palestinian institutions.”

Jerusalem has always been, to put it mildly, a major point of contention in negotiations and foreign policy. Lately, the situation on the ground has been heating up more than usual. The city has witnessed a large influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are attempting to push Palestinian residents out of the city’s Arab neighborhoods and villages. Just a quick look at news reports from Jerusalem will reveal that the number of evictions and demolitions is up significantly. Clashes between Palestinian residents and the settlers along with their armed bodyguards (the Israeli army) have become more frequent and violent. The settlers’ theft of land has also grown more aggressive and resourceful, using every law in the land to their advantage – an easy task when the laws are already biased in their favor. According to a recent Amnesty International report, “In the first six months of 2008 Israel has expanded settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank at a faster rate than in the previous seven years.” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expressed similar distress in May when he pointed out that in this year alone there has been a 38% increase in settlement expansion in east Jerusalem.

In the last week, two organisation have filed objections to Israel’s latest attempt to redefine the borders and demographics of Jerusalem. Adalah and the Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem (CCDPRJ), on behalf of 73 objectors, officially protested the Israeli ‘Jerusalem Regional Master Plan’, submitted two months ago. The plan contains no consideration for the lives of Palestinians in Jerusalem. According to Adalah attorney Suhad Bishara, it seeks to maintain a permanent Jewish majority within the area designated “united greater Jerusalem.” Under the plan, transportation networks for Israelis will cut off Palestinians neighborhoods from one another and from their land, allowing no room for expansion of their own neighborhoods, and will also advance settlement entrenchment in east Jerusalem. The plan seems to ignore the fact that Jerusalem remains a final status issue for negotiations between Palestine and Israel, despite outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s concession that Jerusalem must be divided if there is ever to be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The rally held last week was not too different to ones held in the past for the same cause, and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington D.C. have for years been demanding that the US move its embassy to Jerusalem. However, this year there is a greater sense of fear and urgency regarding any possible change in the matter of Jerusalem. Palestinians and members of the international community are becoming increasingly alarmed by the rapid transformations being executed in the city and around the West Bank. While Israel’s policies in east Jerusalem have always been biased against Palestinians, there is a sense now that Israel is in a hurry to change the situation on the ground irrevocably in their favor. An American decision to implement the Jerusalem Act will only serve to support those changes.

Any decision which alters the status of Jerusalem (including a move of embassies to the city) will harm future peace negotiations and render any past progress irrelevant. Change is happening, but it is not the change Palestinians want to see. And if Israel wants to achieve peace with the Palestinians, it is not the change they should want to see either.

(Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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