By Joharah Baker – The West Bank
Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak floated an old/new idea of allowing certain Palestinian populated areas around Jerusalem to become the capital of any future Palestinian state. The center of the city, which includes the Old City, would remain in Israeli hands.
Like each time before, the Palestinian leadership rejected the proposal outright, maintaining the PLO’s political line and all other Palestinian political parties that insist on east Jerusalem becoming Palestine’s capital.
At this point in the Palestinians’ struggle, frankly, the people would expect nothing less from their leaders. The Palestinian people have been witness to several historic compromises, some of them more painful than others. In November 1988, late President Yasser Arafat declared Palestine’s independence during a special session of the Palestine National Council in Algiers. The future Palestinian state, he announced, would be established on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. In other words, with one swipe of his mighty pen, Arafat excluded 78 percent of historical Palestine from the national struggle. Palestine would live peacefully side by side with Israel on the land Israel occupied in the 1967 War. Part of that land included east Jerusalem even though Israel unilaterally annexed this sector of the city later in that same year.
Hence, the Palestinian political stance has remained unwavering where Jerusalem is concerned. Still, all else aside, the attachment to Jerusalem runs much deeper than a political stance. On this issue in particular, I find it hard to believe that Palestinians everywhere would be able to release their hold on this holy city.
Take the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims across the globe. In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City lies the Noble Sanctuary a 35-acre area that includes the Aqsa Mosque, revered as the third holiest site in Islam and the Dome of the Rock where Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven on his winged horse. While Muslims frequent the mosque compound throughout the year, during Ramadan, prayer there is especially coveted. On Fridays, flocks of people descend on the compound to pray and Palestinians in particular are willing to risk arrest and even their lives for a chance to kneel in prayer on its sacred grounds.
Last Friday, September 5, saw thousands of men and women from the West Bank camp out at Israeli checkpoints around the city hoping to be allowed to cross over into Jerusalem. To them it did not matter that the temperature was above 30 degrees or that they would not be allowed a drink of water until the evening call to prayer marked the end of their day of fasting. For these dedicated men and women, reaching Al Aqsa was worth any hardships that might stand in their way.
Fully understanding that Israel would not allow an unlimited of Palestinians to cross into Jerusalem, many young Muslims tried to find other ways that would circumvent the checkpoints to enter the city. This included squeezing through the few remaining cracks in the separation wall in certain areas around Jerusalem or cutting across open fields and ducking from Israeli patrols to somehow enter the "forbidden" city. Once there, Palestinians faced further risks with thousands of Israeli police and border guards stationed at the entrance to the Old City and the compound itself.
To fully understand how important Al Aqsa is to Palestinian Muslims, who make up the overwhelming majority of Palestinian society, imagine being asked to deliver a handful of soil from the compound itself as a gift to someone outside of Jerusalem. This is not an uncommon request, both by Palestinians unable to reach the city and by Muslims who hold the sacred compound in equally high esteem. It is a symbolic gesture, no doubt but one that reflects the unbreakable attachment to this place and the city where it is located.
Palestinian Muslims, however, do not have sole claim to Jerusalem. Christians, both Palestinian and otherwise, are also not willing to hand over Jerusalem to foreign – namely Israeli – hands, especially since it is the site of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified.
Even if we put religious significance aside, Jerusalem holds a special place in Palestinian hearts. The walls of its Old City are centuries old, each with a story to tell. The two small neighborhoods flanking the main entrance to Al Aqsa are mostly inhabited by African- Palestinians, a small minority of the Muslim quarter who although are less prominent than other ethnic groups in this diverse city, have equally as strong bonds to it. Back in the 1940’s, a group of pious African Muslims made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to Al Aqsa to pay their religious duties. Because of their loyalty to Islam and to the Noble Sanctuary, the Waqf, or Islamic Authority, vested in them the duty of guarding the doors to Al Aqsa and allowed them housing in the two neighborhoods just outside of the compound. As the years passed and the subsequent wars broke out, the African men stayed, married Palestinian women, and a new generation of Palestinians of African background was born in Jerusalem.
There are several other ethnic groups in various pockets of the Old City, including Armenians, Christians and Jews, all in their distinct neighborhoods. There is even a Gypsy community with around 100 families living in part of the Muslim Quarter, who have made their home there for centuries.
This unique hodgepodge of Palestinian ethnicities makes Jerusalem one of the most distinguished cities in the world. While Jews also have claims in the city, Palestinians have come to terms with allowing them the western sector, even though many of the homes there were originally owned by Palestinians.
Given these unbreakable ties between Palestinians and Jerusalem, it is obvious any solution that falls short of granting them the eastern sector as their capital will crash and burn, at least in the eyes of the people. Israel may extract other compromises from the Palestinian leadership but it is our hope that this is one "red line" that will never be crossed.
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org. Republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)