Middle East & North Africa

History Provides Lessons for Jerusalem’s Future


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July 09, 2015 16:33 EDT

In solving the Jerusalem issue, history presents obstacles and opportunities.

On April 15, the Israeli Supreme Court affirmed the application of the Absentee Property Law in Occupied East Jerusalem, therefore, allowing the unlawful confiscation of property and assets in the area from their Palestinian owners residing in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The confirmation of this law, issued in 1950 and used as a legal tool for the perpetuation of what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (“catastrophe,” the forced displacement of Palestinians that led to the establishment of Israel), represents only a fraction of the struggle that Arab populations face in the tourist-friendly city of Jerusalem, where at the same time basic human rights are violated on a daily basis.

For this population, the right to housing, education, health, employment or a unified family is considered a privilege. Such violations, enforced by Israeli rule or allowed by turning a blind eye to violations committed by Israeli citizens, aim to uproot the Arab population from the holy city. Forced to leave what is, under international law, their rightful home, the only resort for those deprived communities is within the very same institutions that acted against them.

The Israeli policies toward Jerusalemites affect issues such as infrastructure and planning policies, displacement of populations, land confiscation and settlement establishment in order to separate West Bank Palestinians from their capital: Jerusalem.

B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, states in a report on infrastructure in Palestinian neighborhoods that there are 26 libraries in non-Palestinian areas, while Palestinian areas have only two. For 531 sport facilities in non-Palestinian areas, Palestinian areas only have 33. Construction permits within Palestinian communities are continually refused despite their population growing four-fold since 1967. Those restrictions relate to playgrounds, schools, sidewalks and sewage pipes.

Jerusalem was once the cultural, political and economical center of the Palestinians. However, this has radically changed. Since 2002, Israeli authorities put in place more restrictions for Palestinians’ freedom of movement, resulting in only a few farmers from the surrounding area still being able to sell their merchandise in the holy city. Almost 5,000 shops have closed since then, East Jerusalem’s economy has practically collapsed and about 75% of the Palestinian population live below the poverty line.

Palestinian families suffering from those harsh conditions often have no other choice but to leave, thus further cementing a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Several aspects may be used to give legitimacy to these restrictions: security measures in the context of the Palestinian intifadas, sanction measures, archaeological purpose or even environmental protection. The ecofriendly metro line on the actual line of demarcation between Israel and the West Bank and the Green Belt, a natural reserve impeding any Palestinian construction development, are examples of the latter.

Among the reasons behind the restrictions, however, lies the fundamental will to bring Jerusalem back to its former, supposedly pure, Jewish character. It is, therefore, on a historical basis that the future of Jerusalem is set.

The base of legitimacy

Fundamentalism is to consider a golden period, crystallizing an imaginative identity, and to be willing to come back to that context so as to reach higher purity. But to achieve a faith statement on a historic basis is a chimera. Indeed, the communities and the political structures that govern them are ever evolving entities, and therefore, the determination of a “moment zero” in a country allowing an affirmation of purity is impossible—and so too is its “pure” identity.

From the analysis of the Bible by historian Karen Armstrong, even in the patriarchal narrative of the search for a homeland, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remain highly aware of their alien status in Canaan (roughly the area of the Levant during the Phoenician era). In the history of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Jews, Christians and Muslims all found other people in possession of the city. All of them had to cope with the fact that the city and the land were and still are sacred to other people as well. Even when Israel was divided among the 12 tribes of the Bible, the holy book states that “the sons of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem.”

Still, anteriority became a supreme base of legitimacy—who stood there first has legitimacy over the place. In this quest for anteriority, archaeology became something no longer related to history, but as a political tool of supposed proof for claiming one people’s prevalence. Israelis and Palestinians alike played this game and, while drowning any possible solutions into the depths of millennial times, actual human dramas were and are still legitimated upon those theories.

If Jerusalem cannot be detached from its history, it is vital to pay attention to another historical period that is particularly interesting for its peaceful outcome—a past that is barely over a century old: Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire.

Historian, poet and UNESCO Ambassador for Palestine Elias Sanbar told this author that when it comes to Jerusalem’s identity, to be the depositary people of the Holy Land is a heavy burden. Indeed, since the time of the pharaoh to what we know today as Jerusalem, it has always been a targeted land.

When a territory is targeted for centuries, the population living there tends to identify with the land and are unified as a targeted people—together as a community. But wasn’t the population of Jerusalem massacred as a whole during the First Crusade? Jews, Christians and Muslim alike were slaughtered by the crusaders, who could not distinguish between Christians and their neighbors.

In this context, the question of religious affiliation became optional. Individually, they were Jews, Christians or Muslims, but because of this unique place on earth, the inhabitants of Jerusalem considered themselves all as receptacles of events linked to the city.

This community has concrete manifestations. The idea of the division of the Old City into quarters is both less old and less rigid than it is often represented. According to historian K.J. Asali: “In early Ottoman times there were no separate quarters for Christians and Jews. The names ‘Christian quarter’ or ‘Jewish quarter’ do not appear in Ottomans registers before the 19th century.” Christians and Jews lived together in the same quarters. There was generally a great degree of heterogeneity of the population in most parts of the city. Even when the number of Jews grew extensively in the Old City in the 19th century, just before they moved to a new, exclusive Jewish quarter in 1870, the people lived intermingled with their Arab neighbors in the areas adjoining the Jewish quarter.

Jerusalemite identity as a way forward?

On May 11, the last Jerusalem day displayed a new demonstration of segregation and hatred between the two most represented religions of the city. Under the reassuring name of “unification of Jerusalem” and under a two-millennium-old legitimacy, Israel is implementing maneuvers of expropriations of private property and coercive removals of the Arab population to achieve irreversible changes in the city’s character.

Opposing this legitimacy narrative, H.J. Franken says: “Myths often contain useful information about the past, but unfortunately it is the nature of myth that history is heavily concealed by it.” Even in the old city of Jerusalem, where the layer of stones may not have changed, the sentiments and meaning attached to them are constantly being reworked over the centuries by all three religions.

History is made of vectors that people travel along during their lives, therefore, it lies in the possibility to be identifiable, not immutable. Under Ottoman rule, Muslims were Muslims, but because of this shared land, they remained particularly concerned by anything else that was happening to Christians or Jews in Jerusalem. Herein lies an essential aspect of the Jerusalemite identity, an aspect that today’s fundamentalism tends to suppress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

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