The riddle of Jerusalem

Print edition : September 02, 2000

A division of Jerusalem, a holy city for three faiths, is the most difficult part of the ongoing peace process, but there is some hope that it can be settled amicably.

ANY visitor to this still beautiful hilltop city can see how it naturally divides into a western Jerusalem and an eastern Al Quds. Climbing up to the ridge line and slightly spilling over it at a few places, the western part of the city is Jewish, or at least modern Israeli. Sliding down the valleys and slopes that run towards the distant Jordan river valley, the eastern part is so visibly Arab that efforts to change its character have not mattered. But at the rear of it is the nub, the spiritual centre of three faiths, which complicates what should have otherwise been the profane task of determining space and distribution.

An Israeli border policeman stands guard on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.-NATALIE BEHRING/REUTERS

It needs to be remembered that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are aimed at creating a new reality to replace the existing reality. What has been sought is the separation of two people who were closely intertwined for many decades despite their mutu al rage and disgust. Over the past six years, the separation was accomplished wherever possible. But so long as they remain intertwined in one place, or in one sphere of existence, then in ultimate effect their separateness elsewhere is incomplete.

A major at the Camp David talks in July was to unravel the umbilical cord of Jerusalem so that the twins could be separated. As in regard to the territorial transactions that have already taken place between the Israeli and the Palestinian authorities th e initiative was with Israel since it exercises physical control. In a proposal made at Camp David this geographically contiguous urban sprawl was conceptualised as being divisible into three, or rather four, different entities.

One of these, the almost wholly Jewish western part of the city, was of course not on the negotiating table. Another part of the western continuum - comprising the districts of Abu Dis, Azarriye and Suwahara - has already been transferred to partial Pale stinian control. These districts are now included in the Area B schedule of the Oslo accords where the Palestinian Authority has full administrative powers but under overall Israeli sovereignty.

Much confusion has been caused in and by the media by the incomplete disclosures regarding what Israel offered in respect of the remaining two areas - the Walled City and the mostly Arab neighbourhoods that abut western Jerusalem. Clarifying the position , an official of Israel's Foreign Ministry pointed out that the true picture had yet to be presented in the media. What Israel has offered in respect of these two areas is transference of "autonomy over the personnel" while retaining sovereignty over the territory. In other words, the Arabs living in the Walled City and the inner neighbourhoods would become citizens of the Palestinian state-to-be while the land on which they live would continue to be Israeli territory. There was very little chance, for reasons that will become evident, that the Palestinians would accept this offer.

The Israeli offer was in essence only a formal recognition of the reality. Arabs, Christians and Muslims living in the Walled City and inner neighbourhoods consider themselves Palestinian citizens for most practical purposes. They have voted in the Pales tinian elections, they follow the Palestinian curriculum in school and they submit routine law and order matters to the Palestinian Authority. For all practical purposes they are already Palestinian citizens and Israel was merely offering to recognise th em as such.

There is, however, a cutting edge to such a continuance of the existing reality. A severe disadvantage that Palestinians have suffered ever since Israel captured the eastern part of the city in June 1967 is the constant pressure to make them relinquish c ontrol over the land. Irrespective of the pro- or anti-peace sentiment of the Israel government, there has been a persistent policy of extreme miserliness in granting building permits to Arabs. Denied the right to expand their dwellings as their families expand, the Arabs have been left with only two choices. They can either build without permits, only to have the extensions demolished by the Israeli authorities, or they can move out of Jerusalem. If they take the latter course and live out of Jerusalem for a prolonged period, they forfeit the right to return as residents of the city.

At present Jerusalem is controlled by a hard-core right-wing Mayor. The fastest growing segment of the Jewish population in Jerusalem is made up of the religiously conservative who are also by and large anti-Arab. Under these circumstances a formal arran gement whereby Israel will retain control over the land is something that the Arabs can only view with extreme trepidation.

There is a feeling even among Arab intellectuals that Israel cannot be serious about retaining control over the land which forms the inner neighbourhoods. These areas - like Abu Tor, Silwan, Ras al Amud and so on - are very obviously Arab and form a con tinuum with areas such as Abu Dis that are to be transferred to full Palestinian control. It makes little sense for Israel to retain control over these areas and a deal on such lines would be patently iniquitous. There is therefore a belief that this par t of the Israeli offer is nothing more than a bargaining position and that the problem of the inner neighbourhoods can be resolved if some other Israeli concerns are addressed.

MATTERS do not look so simple from the Israeli perspective. Areas such as Abu Tor have been a part of Jerusalem municipality for a long time. If an Israeli government were to transfer these areas to Palestinian control, it would be accused by the politic al opposition of having divided Jerusalem. Successive Israeli governments have so strongly defended their policy of keeping Jerusalem as a " united city under Israeli sovereignty" that they now find it difficult to escape from the burden of their own rhe toric.

The situation is not hopeless. One relatively unnoticed aspect of the Olso processes is that taboos serially dissolved as they unfolded. For example, when the process began none but the boldest of Israeli peaceniks would have categorically affirmed the r ight of the Palestinians to form a state. Today almost all Israelis take for granted that some form of a Palestinian state will come into being. Therefore there is the hope that since a part of the taboo - on speaking of any kind of Palestinian control i n Jerusalem - has been broken, the reality might eventually sink in among the Israeli public and lead them to a point where they allow the relinquishment of the inner neighbourhoods.

Even if they do so, the riddle of Jerusalem will remain unresolved. While the Muslims and Christians living in the quarters of the Walled City have been included in the Israeli offer to transfer autonomy of the personnel, their land is subject to the sam e caveat. Again it is possible that the Israeli public might come around to the relinquishment of the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters of the Walled City. But there seems to be no way that they or their government will ever relinquish sovereignty over the acreage that they call the Temple Mount.

There is a lunatic fringe in the Israeli right-wing that would seem to draw inspiration from the Ram Janmabhoomi activists of 1992. But the majority of Israelis do not appear ready to support a similar act of vandalism on the Dome of the Rock and the Al- Aqsa mosque which stand on the Temple Mount. These Muslim holy sites are administered by the Palestinian waqf and Jews are not permitted to pray on the mount itself. (The Western Wall of the Mount is the Jewish sacred shrine.) But very few Israelis, even among the secular, can countenance the idea that they must forever relinquish any right or hope or sentiment attached to the Mount.

Several teams, including mixes of academics and officials, are currently trying to solve the riddle posed by the Temple Mount. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians think much of the Pope's idea that the territory should be granted the status of an internati onal city or as some place where all three faiths will somehow jointly exercise sovereignty. It is possible for the uncommitted to conceive a solution to this problem. But there is such a concentration of religious faith and national identity focussed on the issue that logic is pushed to the background.

One major Israeli complaint is that they are the only ones putting any offers on the table and that if the Palestinians have objections they should make counter-offers. To this the Palestinians reply that the Israelis are only ready to recognise what alr eady exists and/or less than what is demanded by international legality. While the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif issue has been brought into sharp focus - even by the Palestinians for their own tactical purposes - other issues remain unresolved as well.

The Palestinians are adamant that they will insist on the right of their refugees to return. While recognising that many refugees might choose not to return to Israel, they insist that Israel must recognise this right and also accept responsibility for c reating the refugee problem in the first place.

Israel, they point out, cannot plead that it does not have the space to accommodate the refugees since it is even today taking in a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union including many who might not even be Jewish. If the Israeli argume nt is that the absorption of the Arab refugees would dilute the Jewish nature of their state, then this is a racist argument that the international community should not brook.

Israeli officials say that the Palestinian Authority is indulging in grand-standing. As far as they are concerned, the parameters they would abide by are as follows:

There would be a general statement expressing sorrow and regret at the plight of the refugees created by the Arab-Israel conflict; Israel would make no comment on the right of refugees to return to Israel or the Palestinian territory; an international me chanism would be set up to rehabilitate refugees and compensate those (both Arabs and Jews who came from the West Asian states in 1948) who were dispossessed when Israel came into being; both sides would declare that once the mechanism had done its work their mutual claims would be settled and the conflict between them brought to an end.

If there is still a wide gap between the two sides' positions on the refugee issue, the differences on other issues have not been completely narrowed either. In principle, Israel has for the last one-and-a-half-years accepted that a Palestinian state wil l come into being. But it will oppose a Palestinian declaration of statehood until it knows the nature of that state. Even this might not be a problem, except for its timing, since the Palestinians seem to accept the fact that their state will have some limitations on its military capabilities and powers to make treaties.

There are a few technical hitches, such as an agreement on the size and composition of the border patrols along the Jordan river which the Palestinians are willing to let Israel maintain. The question of whether Israel will be allowed to post personnel a t the border crossing points is also being debated. While border security is a technical matter, the alignment of the border remains a substantive issue.

The Palestinians point out that they had already lost 80 per cent of their patrimony when Israel was created in 1948 and that they cannot compromise on their stand that Israel must withdraw behind the June 4, 1967 border. Israel wants to retain the large settlement blocks situated on this old border line and the United States, in its mediatory efforts at Camp David, made a bridging proposal that some land in Israel proper can be transferred to the Palestinians in exchange for the West Bank area that for ms the settlement blocks.

At Camp David the Palestinians were willing to consider the swapping of land that was equal in size and quality. In the discussions so far, the land-swap proposal that has been aired works out in the ratio of 9:1, and that is clearly not acceptable to th e Palestinians.

However there has been one definite advance in respect of the territorial issue. Israel has officially and formally conceded that it will not try to retain the Jewish settlements scattered about the West Bank. No special security arrangements will be mad e for these settlements once a comprehensive deal is struck. The people living in these settlements will be under the control of the Palestinian state-to-be, though they would be allowed to hold dual citizenship. But it is highly unlikely that these sett lers, most of whom are ideological right-wingers, will agree to live under Palestinian control. In effect, this offer is tantamount to a decision to close down these settlements.

While the effort to untangle the twins can still not be written off as a doomed project, there are very serious difficulties. Besides the substantial differences there is also the question as to whether Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak still has the po litical clout to carry through on any agreement. That is a story in itself and an advert to it would further depress any spirit of hope that still exists.

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