Jerusalem's identity and the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict

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Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem (image via rsf.org).

Restrictions on access to the sacred sanctity of the Holy City of Jerusalem remains fuel to the fire of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, writes Dr Ibrahim Natil.

The IDENTITY and the special status of the old city of Jerusalem have already complicated the core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the occupation of the city in 1967.

The Israelis took over the old city from King Hashemite of Jordan, annexing it in 1948 as a part of the West Bank after the Jewish Israeli forces defeated the Palestinian Arabs and occupied the western part of the Holy City.

The Israeli occupation has changed the demographic and heritage structure of the city and commemorates the occupation after 3,000 years from the "control of strangers" according to their "biblical doctrine".

Jerusalem, because of its location and the fact that it is a holy city, has had a significant role in the formation of national identity. East Jerusalem is where the famous and most sacred holy sites and shrines of both Muslims and Christians are located. Palestinians are prevented from freely accessing Jerusalem from both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque

These shrines are considered as representing core values for Palestinian national identity. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem suffer from Israeli policies of marginalisation and humiliation. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem represent religious and national symbolism to all Palestinians from all spectrums of life. The current wave of protest also challenges the Israeli long-standing position that “Jerusalem is unified under Israeli sovereignty and the Jews have free movement to the Al Aqsa Mosque”. 

Israel is attempting to create facts on the ground as part of a plan to take full control of Jerusalem. The Israeli actions, which seem to be biblically driven, are illegal. The Israeli occupation annexed Jerusalem and considers it as its own "eternal" capital, which is not recognised internationally and is considered an occupied city according to international law.

UNESCO calls on the "occupying power" to end projects aimed at altering the "character and status of the Holy City". It has announced on two occasions during the past few months that the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the old city of Jerusalem are Palestinian heritage sites.

The local citizens are spiritually and culturally connected to the Mosque. The Jerusalemites first ask each other every morning"How is the Mosque?" — not, "How is your family, your children or your business?" They have a very strong spiritual connection and loyalty to the Mosque, which takes precedence over their own national identity. The Palestinians' religious connection comes before their national one.

The Palestinians revolt every time the Israelis attempt to test the level of their connection and loyalty to the Mosque. On 24 September 1996, there were reports that the Israeli antiquities authority were digging underneath the Mosque, which infuriated Palestinian youth who rushed onto the streets leading to the violent confrontation between the Palestinian Police and Israeli soldiers. Both sides, however, agreed to end the confrontation at the end of the day.

The Mosque had also already escalated the bloody conflict "the second uprising", between the Palestinians and Israelis when Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli prime minister, paid a visit to Aqsa on 28 September 2000. It led to deaths and the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure — such as the Gaza Airport and Port.

The question of Jerusalem has been an extremely complicated issue on which the Palestinian national leadership has attempted, on different occasions, to reach a compromise on the future of the old city. This has been despite the opposition of the Islamic and ultra-nationalist groups. It attempted to retain control of Aqsa in the hands of the Palestinians, but the Israelis have refused all proposals to compromise on the future of the holy basin of the old city.

The local spiritual leadership of the holy city

The national leadership had already lost its influence over the city after the departure of Faisal Abdel Qader Al-Husseini in 2001. No single leader from either the national or Islamic streams was able to lead the city as Faisal did. Currently, the real word and "sovereignty" of the city is today in the hands of the local citizens and their spiritual leaders, not with the political leaders, or the Jordanian Waqif staff who administrate the daily affairs of the Mosque.

The agreement of the Araba Peace Agreement between Israel and Jordan entitles the latter to administrate the daily affairs of the Mosque. The current circumstances also give the spiritual leaders the right to refuse the use of metal detectors. After the Jordanian Waqif instructed the Mosque staff to use metal detectors, the spiritual leaders insisted on boycotting them, escalating the protest and prayers in the old streets of Jerusalem, leading to the Mosque.

The current policies to restrict access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque have already brought a new campaign of international solidarity with the Palestinian question.

International campaign

The Palestinians abroad and their supporters from different nations and races organise marches across the world to denounce freely the aggressive Israeli measures practised in occupied Jerusalem. They warn of grim repercussions in Palestine and across the Middle East should Israel persist in its illegal actions.

The Israeli police installed metal detectors after the attack carried out by three Palestinian Arabs – holders of Israeli citizenship from the town of Om Al Fahm – killed two policemen who were from Druze, Arabic speaking and loyalist to Israel. The holders of Israeli citizenship enjoy "normal" free movement unlike the Palestinians from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The presence of metal detectors has infuriated the Palestinians and escalated the anger against the Israelis occupation.

Support is not only coming from Muslims and Arabs, but also from Christians who stand against the Israeli measures in the Aqsa Mosque. The Palestinian Christians share the same rights and "cause" with the Palestinian Muslims who seek to establish a viable Palestinian state. Palestinian Christians play a very important role in local politics and resistance. 

The cultural and national identity of Jerusalem continues to create tension between Palestinians and Israelis. The access to the sacred sanctity of Jerusalem will remain fuel to the fire of the conflict as well.

The Palestinians, however, are still seeking a better future and look for any opportunity for hope and change to the current situation, not only in the old city of Jerusalem but also in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, after ongoing oppression and collective punishment of the Palestinians.

Dr Ibrahim Natil is a Fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University He is a human rights campaigner and nominee for the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize.


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