Against all the advice of my friends and colleagues, I’m taking a risk to write about the most contentious land on planet earth. This 36 acres of land within the Old City of Jerusalem has been the focal point of geopolitical battles for centuries. Religious leaders, Political leaders, Business Leaders, and Social Leaders have fought and died for the access to this little square of Holy Land, and even today it has been used as a Diplomatic Tool on the global stage.
If you’ve watched the news today, you’ll hear about the United Nations special gathering to vote on the recent decision by the President of the United States to declare Jerusalem as the Capitol of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy officially to the sprawling city. And as of writing this piece I see that all the countries of the UN voted against the American Declaration.
As a frequent traveler to the region, I’ve been privy to the conversations on both sides of the problem, and have many friends on both sides of this issue. There are so many variables in this equation, and many who are outspoken have decided to ignore the inconvenient ideas threatening their own worldview. So I’ll try and outline from a layman’s point of view why this conversation is important, and who is interested from many points of view.
Obviously it’s important to Israel to consider Jerusalem it’s capitol. Most Israeli government offices already exist and are operating in the city. So to declare the official government capitol of Jerusalem is almost redundant to what’s going on in the country on the ground. It’s really not that big of deal from an operational point of view, but a symbolic victory is in this announcement from a couple of different perspectives.
- The Zionist agenda to reclaim all of Israel as a Jewish State must, in it’s mandate, have the Capitol City in and around the most Holy Jewish Religious sites. Symbolically, Israelis can now stand with America as a superpower in recognition of it’s capitol.
- For Israel, this is one of the pieces of negotiations at the Peace Process table. Jerusalem has always been one of those line items between Palestinians and Israelis that kept real peace from happening. Israel sees this as a victory when America, the former broker for the peace process, just all out acknowledges that Jerusalem is now off the table. (at least from America’s point of view)
- Jews around the world celebrate the return to a place of their ancestors. When you think about the geography in and around Israel, it’s really not that big. Many of the sites where Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob walked and worshipped are in the vicinity of modern day Jerusalem. It’s a religious win for Jews who long to connect with the universal tie to a long history.
- From a political view: the current Prime Minister is supported by a large block of idealist populism known as Settlers. The Settlements in and around Jerusalem have often been described as illegal by the international community. Now the Israeli government can feel the backing of the United States as it tends to work for this large block of people (@800K total people in the country).
From a Palestinian point of view the tragedy continues. There are an estimated 327,000 Palestinians who live in “Arab Jerusalem” while only 10% of the overall Jerusalem budget is spent on Civic Services. Things like trash, police force, health care, and building permits (just to name a few) often already make it difficult for Palestinians to live in. In other words, Palestinians pay a high cost in taxes to receive little in terms of service.
Since the 1967 war, the lines where Israel has authority and Palestinians take over has been encroached on. So when the leading power in the world declares Jerusalem belongs to Israel, from a Palestinian view there are fears.
- From a religious point of view, the third most Holy Site in Islam, and arguably the most Holy Site in Christendom resides in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are both divine sites to Muslims today. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located in the Old City and is the traditional site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Handing over the city to the Israeli government pings on the fear of many Palestinian Muslims and Christians that they will not be allowed to retain their Holy Sites and at a minimum be able to visit them. Today, Palestinians in the West Bank are not allowed to visit Jerusalem without a permit, often denied on no real grounds.
- From a government point of view, the Palestinian authority, now located in Ramallah, has long thought it would also have a play in Jerusalem. Since the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from current Israel, there is a continual fear Palestinians feel they are continuing to loose land and heritage to Israel. With a large portion of Palestinian population living in East Jerusalem, the fear and the question is who will be citizens of Israel, and who will be citizens of future Palestine. Without allocating full citizenship of either governing nation, the West Jerusalemites are living in a sort of no man’s land. No passports. No representation in government. No one to stand up for businesses, social life, education, etc. etc. etc. And when you take a look at the access to natural resources, the Palestinians fear there will be no water delivery if Israel continues to remove them from the capitol city.
- From a historical point of view, Jerusalem has always been conquered by some empire. Usually that empire takes a “none but us” view and expels people it doesn’t want from the city. When the Crusaders came to fight the Ottomans, blood flowed through the streets. When the Ottomans set up camp they killed all Christians and Jews. When Israel came in 1948 they too became the latest power to begin slowly removing people that didn’t fit the country agenda. You can imagine what it must feel like to have another country come to your home and tell you there is no place for you here anymore. It’s a constant fear.
- From a Peace Plan perspective, Jerusalem was considered the last negotiating point. As Israelis and Palestinians continue to try and find a way to live together, it was always thought Jerusalem would be an international city welcoming all. With the symbolic alliance with the United States, the Palestinians see the hope of, at the very least, and international city fading in history.
Of course there are many other players in this game, and many other agendas behind the scenes. You can’t discount the radical conservative Christian view that believes somehow God must rebuild a temple up on the 37 acres called the Temple Mount before Jesus’ return. You can’t overlook the agenda of right wing Israeli Settlers who, guarded by the Israeli Defense Force, try to set up prayer spots in the middle of the Islamic Temple Mount. Surely there is a play when it comes to tourism and business, as Jerusalem funds much of the governments ability to self sustenance. The Tax revenue alone can fund small economies around the world.
So the point is, whatever side you sit on, there are several variables in the decision. For my Israeli friends, it’s a celebration. For my Palestinian friends, it’s another punch in the gut. For my Christian friends in the region, they’re weary when government begins to get in the middle of religion. For my Muslim friends, it’s another rally cry to hate Israel and America. For my Orthodox friends, they’re appalled that there is any government in the Holy State of Israel. For my Settler friends this is a declaration of freedom.
There’s just no easy way to settle the problem. Unfortunately the current American administration seems to continually trivialize these massive contentious issues without really letting us know what they’re doing. I’ve asked several members of Congress, “WHY?” and my question is met with confused looks and really no one can answer it.
It is my humble opinion, you can’t really achieve peace in the region if you keep claiming the victim card. Israel seems to always claim victimhood from the Muslim countries who want to get rid of them. Palestinians are victims of the Occupied Territories where the Israeli army freely roams to detain their children.
Until we create grassroots good will between people where Israelis and Palestinians can see a future where both people can respect “the other,” Jerusalem will be the centerpiece of much argument no matter who declares what Capitol belongs to who.
So I’ll keep working to find people on the ground wiling to see “the other” through the lens of humanity rather than a label informed by a skewed worldview. That’s my play. Until then, I’ll just keep scratching my head as to why in the world America decided to make this decision, stand up to the United Nations and the Global community, and in effect perpetuate the US vs. THEM narrative instead of trying to understand the needs of all parties involved.
And we just keeping taking one step forward for the hope of many in the region.