For Israelis, Jerusalem is, and will always be, the capital of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his office in the city, and it is the seat of Israel’s Parliament and Supreme Court. Nearly every other country, however, looks at Jerusalem as a disputed city, its final status subject to the outcome of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump broke with decades of US policy to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The US embassy was shifted to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
In clashes the same day, Israeli forces killed at least 60 Palestinians — the largest number on a single day since 2014 — and injured 2,700. Protesters rushing towards the border fence in Gaza were egged on by clerics who announced a charge on Jerusalem with “millions of martyrs”, while Hamas vowed to “draw the map of return (to Jerusalem) in blood”. At the opening of the US embassy meanwhile, Netanyahu exulted, “What a glorious day… This is history! We are in Jerusalem and we are here to stay.”
What is it about Jerusalem that raises such passions? Why is the city so contested?
The Temple Mount, the Jewish religion’s holiest site, is in Jerusalem, and Jews from across the world come to pray at the Western Wall of the Biblical temple. On this same plateau is the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Not far is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought to be the site of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection.
When the UN approved the division of British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states in 1947, the city, given its unique importance to three religions, was left to be governed by a “special international regime”. The Arabs rejected the UN plan, attacked Israel the day after it was created in 1948, and were defeated. Israel took control of West Jerusalem, and Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion described “Jewish Jerusalem” as “an organic, inseparable part of the State of Israel”. Even so, East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and the holy sites, passed under Jordanian occupation.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 fanned and shaped the fierce contest over Jerusalem. After Gamal Abdel Nasser announced he would close the Strait of Tiran (which joins the Gulf of Aqaba between Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea), Israel attacked Egypt. Syria and Jordan joined in on Egypt’s side, and the entire Arab world backed them. But it took Israel just six days to humiliate them, and snatch the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and Golan Heights from Syria.
The victory fired the Jewish national consciousness: the euphoria of re-occupying Old Jerusalem and praying at the Western Wall was cathartic, and it convinced the young nation and the Jewish people, sufferers of centuries of persecution, that there was nothing they could not achieve. “Jerusalem became the centre of a cult-like devotion that had not existed previously,” Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, told The New York Times.
After Menachem Begin’s Likud came to power in 1977, the idea that Jerusalem lay at the heart of Israeli identity was strengthened further. Its importance in Jewish history was underlined relentlessly, and schoolchildren were taken to visit the city. A law passed in 1980 declared, “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel”.
Having occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, Israel virtually annexed it in 1980. The 1993 Oslo Accords created a Palestinian Authority for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but did not address the status of Jerusalem. To Palestinians, Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Palestine. The international community sees East Jerusalem as part of the Palestinian territories.
To hardline Jewish nationalists, Jerusalem is now literally an article of faith. Given that no one expects Arabs and Muslims to give up their claim on the city that they too, consider sacred, Trump’s backing of the Israeli position makes an Israeli-Palestinian deal even more difficult. Jerusalem is likely to remain contested for the foreseeable future.