Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem
The outbreak of violence in Jerusalem is the clearest indication that if some type of peace agreement, which includes the fate of the historic city, is not reached in the immediate future, the entire peace process may unravel.
For over a year both the Palestinians and Israelis have handled the final status talks regarding Jerusalem as if it were a hot potato. When both sides promised last fall to resolve key issues regarding Jerusalem by February of 2000, few if any observers believed that such an accomplishment was achievable in such short of a time frame.
And sure enough, the efforts to reach an agreement fell apart before the February deadline and ever since the effort to come to terms has been on the ropes.
This summer even a desperate and energetic attempt by President Clinton to bring both sides together was unsuccessful.
The crux of the problem in resolving the issue is that both sides involved cannot afford the appearance of losing face on the issue. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are willing to agree to terms that would place certain portions of the city under the control of the other side especially that part of Jerusalem, often referred to as the "Old City" where several sacred sites are located.
To be specific, these holy sites are located on the elevated platform of the Old City referred to as Temple Mount by Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims. It is on the elevated platform where violence began last Thursday when several Muslims and Arabs were infuriated by a visit to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary by Israeli nationalist and former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Many Muslims and Arabs despise Sharon due to his leadership of the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, which led to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut.
Sharon, in the view of many, arrogantly displayed disrespect for Muslims and Arabs on Thursday when he was escorted by 1,000 Israeli riot police through the Noble Sanctuary during a Muslim Prayer service.
Sharon intended the visit to the Noble Sanctuary to provide a public demonstration of Israeli's sovereignty over the site, which Israel took from Jordan in 1967. Though Israel captured control of the holy site, Muslims handle the daily management of the site.
Ironically, though the area's importance is of epic proportion to an enormously large number of people in the world, it is physically very small in size.
According to Nadav Shragai of the Israeli daily Haaretz:
The Old City is not large - only 871 dunam (218 acres) - and in addition to the holy sites, dozens of other holy places, synagogues, mosques, churches and monasteries can be found in the city and its environs (the Old City basin). Even the designation of a site as "holy" is ambiguous and is not officially anchored in law. About 210 dunams (52.5 acres) belong to the Waqf (Muslim religious trust), another 250 dunams (62.5 acres) is of Christian ownership - churches and monasteries, about 170 (42.5 acres) dunams belong to the state and another 240 (60 acres) is privately owned, mostly by Arabs.
In late 1998, 32,488 people lived in the Old City, of which about 70 percent were Muslim, about 20 percent Christians of various denominations and 8.5 percent Jews. The density of housing in the Old City is among the highest in Jerusalem and the standard of living is among the lowest in the city. Crime, poverty and drugs are widespread. Like in the other parts of East Jerusalem, there is a jungle of illegal construction, especially injurious to an area such as the Old City. Frequently, this construction destroys and changes the fabric of sites recommended for preservation. Such construction can be found in cellars, courtyards and in any imaginable place in order to meet the needs of the constantly growing population, and it is carried out by private individuals as well as by Christian and Muslim religious institutions. The Old City is also a major religious center for citizens of the Israel and inhabitants of the territories, and of course a magnet for tourists from all over the world.
Up until last month, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had demanded exclusive control on the Temple Mount - a position that Israel has repeatedly indicated it finds unacceptable. However, in September, Arafat proposed that sovereignty on the Temple Mount be placed in the hands of a body consisting of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the Jerusalem Committee of the Islamic Organization Conference. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak has not ruled out Arafat's proposal but is under pressure from many inside of Israel, including Sharon, to reject Arafat's proposal.
Many Israelis oppose the recent Arafat proposal because it would mandate that although sovereignty on the Temple Mount would be placed in the hands of an international body, that international body would give Arafat jurisdiction and would appoint him as the custodian of the Islamic sites - an arrangement that would be pleasing to the majority of the leadership of the world's 1 billion Muslims.
The support of the international Islamic community is important for Arafat, in order to make up for the displeasure that his international proposal has been met with by Palestinians who want outright control of the area. Without international Islamic support the proposal could be derailed by a coalition of nationalist Palestinians.
Recently Barak indicated that he is open to the possibility of Jerusalem being divided in two with an Israeli portion known as Jerusalem and a Palestinian portion known as Al Quds. The idea, launched by Barak in the Israeli media, was met with fierce opposition by Sharon. "This is a major historical mistake. It is the first time that a Jewish leader agreed to divide Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the last 3,000 years," Sharon said.
If both Arafat and Barak can hold off the opposition that they are receiving for entertaining "new" ideas to addressing this very old problem, there stands a very good chance that the status of Jerusalem will be addressed by an international solution that receives the combined support of the United Nations, the international Islamic community and the Pope who has for a long time advocated the idea of the internationalization of Jerusalem as "God's city".
Recently the Pope received a measure of support by a group of Middle East academics who support the idea of making God the sovereign over Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary.
Though it is doubtful that such international arrangements will create a lasting peace in Jerusalem, they may keep the region from plunging into an all-out war in the short-term.
Monday, October 2, 2000