The guns may have fallen silent, but the powder keg sitting among us could explode yet again. Yes. As long as the root cause of the Palestinian question remains unresolved, bloodshed seems to be this region’s destiny, its reoccurring tragedy.
And it is mostly about Al Quds or Jerusalem, the holy city claimed by the three ‘heavenly’ religions, and the cause of wars, crusades, and misery for thousands of years.
So, what is in a city that evokes such strong emotions and makes men so willing to slaughter fellow men? The real Jerusalem, by the way, is a mere one square kilometre. That makes it the most expensive piece of land of all time as it has been paid again and again with precious blood of perhaps millions of people over the course of history.
Camp David talks
In the summer of 2000, we reached the closest as it gets to finally resolving the Arab- Israeli conflict. The Camp David talks, between the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then Israeli pime minister Ehud Barak, headed by US president Bill Clinton, were going, we were told, according to plan.
Most issues of the final status were ironed out. Then came up the question of Jerusalem. Israel was supposed to relinquish control it had seized in the 1967 war over East Jerusalem. But at the last minute, Barak reneged on this commitment. The talks collapsed and Arafat walked away.
I, like many of those who followed the conflict closely over the past few decades, think that all issues of the Arab- Israeli struggle are bridgeable. Arafat-Barak in 2000, Arafat- Isaac Rabin in 1994-1995, were almost there. The status of Jerusalem, however, will always stand in the way.
In his book, Once Upon a Country, Palestinian academic, politician and prominent Jerusalemite Sari Nusseibeh, writes: “The Jerusalem I was raised to love was the terrestrial gateway to the divine world where Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets, men of vision and a sense of humanity, met – if only in the imagination.”
His words, ‘the terrestrial gateway’ to heaven, are echoed by Arab poet Nizar Qabbani, who writes in his famous poem, Al Quds: “O Jerusalem, the city that spews prophets. Oh Jerusalem, the shortest path between earth and heaven.”
Invaders, conquerors and heroes
So which Jerusalem we are talking about here? Is it the city in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live and work? Or is it the gateway to heaven, the imaginary one that lured countless of invaders, conquerors and heroes?
What complicates the conflict is that even today’s politician think of Jerusalem as “the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice—in heaven and on earth,” as British author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, the son of a known Zionist family, writes in his book, Jerusalem, The Biography.
Jerusalem is thus the essence of the Middle East conflict. The latest war between Israel and the Palestinian was sparked by the occupation’s plan to evict 28 Palestinian families from their homes in the holy city and give the land to an association of Jewish settlers.
For the Arabs and Muslims, Jerusalem is the first Qibla and houses the third holiest shrine in Islam. In 2000, Arafat reportedly told Clinton that if he were to accept the Camp David offer, he would not live long to implement it — he would have been considered a traitor by Arabs.
Therefore, Jerusalem must be looked at in the political context. We all need to disengage from the historically emotional narrative and address its question in today’s instrument.
Holy City of Jerusalem
In its most update resolution on the status of Jerusalem, the United Nations — both the General Assembly and the Security Council — affirmed in 1997 that “the decision of Israel to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on the Holy City of Jerusalem is illegal and therefore null and void and has no validity whatsoever.”
In the same year, the European Union, unequivocally declared that “East Jerusalem is subject to the principles set out in Security Council resolution 242 (1967) of 22 November 1967, notably the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and is therefore not under Israeli sovereignty” stressing that “the Fourth Geneva Convention is fully applicable to East Jerusalem, as it is to other territories under occupation.”
Since June 4, 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, it tried to expand the city limits and add more lands, mostly from the western areas, to ensure a Jewish majority.
It also surrounded the holy city with more than a dozen Jewish settlements to separate it from the rest of the West Bank. All these measures, regularly condemned by the international community, failed to change the status quo of the city.
The Israelis today have a historic opportunity to be part of this region, a constructive player in the Middle East. Several Arab countries have signed peace accords with Israel in the hope that these deals will prompt the Israelis to commit to peace, in which a free independent Palestinian state exists with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A square kilometre of heaven on earth
Clinging to an imaginary idea of Jerusalem- ‘one square kilometre of heaven on earth’- will only prolong the conflict and lead to more bloodshed. It is time that all give up this idea and realise it is an occupied land, but at the same time a place where followers of different religions coexist.
Leave the past in the history books and off the negotiating table. The Palestinian question is not about history; it is a struggle for freedom and independence.
In his book, Sari Nusseibeh sums up the conflict: “One day the Israelis may realise that the reason for the never-ending turmoil disrupting their lives has nothing to do with our opposition to the Jewish state but is rooted in the more mundane fact that human beings are not constituted to accept injustice."
As long as the root cause of the Palestinian Question remains unresolved, bloodshed seems to be this region’s destiny.