Jerusalem: Religion, Politics and Law

Al Aqsa Mosque

Dome of the Rock

The following are answers to questions commonly asked regarding Jerusalem, one of the “final status” matters in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

*What is the issue with Jerusalem?  Is it a done deal with Israel having annexed it and declared it the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”?

There is a myth that Israel has annexed East Jerusalem. This is not the case at all. Israel has not annexed East Jerusalem. Had it annexed it, the population of the city would have automatically become Israeli citizens. This is not the case. They are Jordanian passport holders with permanent residency cards issued by Israel.

* If not annexed, then what is Jerusalem’s status?

 Israel has extended its jurisdiction over it. In a letter to the UN dated 7/10/1967, Israel stated: ‘The term “annexation” is out of place. The measures adopted related to the integration of Jerusalem in the administrative and municipal spheres and furnish a legal basis for the protection of the Holy Places.”’

*Has East Jerusalem become Israelized, losing its Arab Palestinian identity?

 I have visited the city last summer. East Jerusalem is an Arab city, fully. It feels like an Arab city under occupation, which it is. No visitor of East Jerusalem can fail to sense that. It has Arab shops, Arab people, Arab culture, Arab food, Arab food smells, etc. Jerusalemite students study the Jordanian curriculum and the Jordanian dinar is accepted. Despite almost forty years of occupation, East Jerusalem has not lost its identity despite ongoing Israeli projects to change the status quo.

*What is the position of international law as to Jerusalem?

 UN Resolution 181 of 11/29/1947 partitioned Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was declared a Corpus Separatum, a separate entity, to be governed by a special international regime. During the 1948 war, Jewish gangs took over West Jerusalem, the Arab Legion of King Abdullah I of Jordan took over Eastern Jerusalem. Neither the UN nor any world power has given recognition to the political and legal order that was created by Jewish and Jordanian facts on the ground. The international legal status of Jerusalem, East and West, remains legally controlled by the language of Resolution 181. Even Israel’s Abba Eban conceded as such to the UN General Assembly in 1949 that “the legal status of Jerusalem is different from the territory in which Israel is sovereign.” Israel was applying for UN membership at the time.

*What is the position of the US as to Jerusalem?

The US does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or East Jerusalem as part of Israel. The US considers Jerusalem as a final status matter to be resolved when other less difficult issues have been resolved. Incidentally, there is a US consulate in East Jerusalem that serves mainly the Palestinians of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.

*What is the Supreme Court case Zivotofsky v. Clinton about, known as the Jerusalem case?

 Congress, responding to pro-Israel lobbying, passed ‘Section 214(d) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2003 – which directs the Secretary of State, upon request, to designate “Israel” as the place of birth on the passport of a U.S. citizen who is born in Jerusalem.’ President George W Bush signed the bill into law attaching a signing statement that the bill would “interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to…determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states.” Citing this law, a Jewish American born in Jerusalem wanted his passport to read “Jerusalem, Israel” as the place of birth. The State department wanted to put the place of birth as “Jerusalem,” a practice consistent with the US position of considering the status of Jerusalem as unresolved. Ultimately the case reached the Supreme Court.

*How did the Court deal with Jerusalem, was the Court mindful of the sensitive nature of the case?

Yes.  The Court stated: “A delicate subject lies in the background of this case. That subject is Jerusalem. Questions touching upon the history of the ancient city and its present legal and international status are among the most difficult and complex in international affairs. In our constitutional system these matters are committed to the Legislature and the Executive, not the Judiciary.” The Court sided with the President since recognition of foreign states is a well- established executive prerogative.

*But the US recognized Israel in 1948 and the West Jerusalem was part of it? Did it not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city?

No. The US position as articulated by the Executive branch was consistent with international law and still is. The Court summarized the history of the American government position on Jerusalem as: ‘Jerusalem’s political standing has long been, and remains, one of the most sensitive issues in American foreign policy, and indeed it is one of the most delicate issues in current international affairs. In 1948, President Truman formally recognized Israel in a signed statement of “recognition.” See Statement by the President Announcing Recognition of the State of Israel, Public Papers of the Presidents, May 14, 1948, p. 258 (1964). That statement did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Over the last 60 years, various actors have sought to assert full or partial sovereignty over the city, including Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Yet, in contrast to a consistent policy of formal recognition of Israel, neither President Truman nor any later United States President has issued an official statement or declaration acknowledging any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.”

*The US and the media refer to the al Aqsa Mosque Compound Sanctuary as the 
“Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif,” how accurate is this designation?

 I asked an archaeologist that worked in Palestine for more than 30 years. He told me, to my surprise, there is no archaeological evidence that a Jewish Temple stood where the Aqsa is now, “though we have reason to believe it did because we have literary evidence,” he said. The position of the Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims, is that no Jewish temple ever stood where the al Aqsa Sanctuary is now was validated by the recent UNESCO decision about the Aqsa Compound without the “Temple Mount” designation.

*But the Aqsa Compound is a “place of active worship,” not an archaeological dig area. Can one say that it was never properly excavated to prove or disprove the Temple’s presence, that it is basically an open question scientifically?

The Israelis have dug tunnels under the Compound. A person who went into the tunnels told me there is “another city there.” When you enter from the former Moroccan Quarter/ Bab al Nabi, where the Prophet entered the area to get to the Western wall, on the left there is an entrance where you can go underground into tunnels dug by Israel under Al Aqsa. Has Israel found evidence of the Temple? No. Jewish artifacts connecting the Jews to the whole city? Of course. Just as you find all kinds of other artifacts from different eras in the city’s history. The connection of the Jews to Jerusalem is undisputed but there is no evidence that the First or Second Jewish Temples stood where the Aqsa Compound is today.

*What is the Western wall?

The Western wall is a part of the al Aqsa compound. In the Muslim tradition, it is the Buraq Wall where Muslims believe the Prophet tied his winged steed that he rode on his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The story is told in Surat al Isra which is also referred as Surat Bani Israel. The Koran reads: “Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” Al Isra 17”1. Al Aqsa is the third holiest shrine in Islam. Al Aqsa does not have the same significance to Islamic minorities the way it does to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims who are Sunni. The connection of Islam to Jerusalem was established and preserved by the Prophet’s journey and its retelling for eternity in the Koran.  
*Other than the Prophet’s night journey and the mention in the Koran, what is the significance of al Aqsa in Islam?
The website summarizes the case for the Aqsa’s significance in Islam: ‘Prophet Muhammad (saw) taught us that we should only undertake a special journey to one of three masaajid; Al Masjid Al Haram in Makkah, Al Masjid An-Nabawi in Madinah, and Al Masjid Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. In addition – prayer in each of these blessed masaajid are multiplied in virtue, with one salaah in Al Masjid Al Aqsa receiving at least 500 times the reward of salaah elsewhere. Al Masjid Al Aqsa has a very special status for Muslims because of its own unique history, including being:

The first qibla in Islam;
The second place of worship built in Islam (built 40 years after Kaaba);
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) travelled to on the night of Isra;
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) led all the other Prophets in prayer;
The place where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) ascended during the Miraj;
A place mentioned in the Quran as being “blessed” and “holy”, on numerous occasions.’

*Have the Jews always prayed at the Western Wall?

The Ottomans allowed the Jews to pray at the Western Wall. But that Wall was part of the al Aqsa with no legal rights conferred on the Jews. It was a practice of Islamic tolerance that shared the Wall with the Jews. The Wall is an integral part of the Compound itself. Soon after occupying East Jerusalem, Israelis headed to the Western Wall. The adjacent area was called the Moroccan quarter. Israel forced the inhabitants of the quarter out and razed their homes. Those who refused to leave had their homes destroyed with them inside. Israel massively expanded the prayer area by the Wall and built a Plaza there. When I visited there last summer I witnessed prayer at the Wall as well as nationalistic dancing and singing in the Plaza area. It was very unsettling given the solemn atmosphere in the Sanctuary itself.

*What is Israel’s policy as to the Aqsa Compound?

When Israel occupied East Jerusalem it moved fast on the Western Wall area turning it into a much bigger de facto Jewish shrine area. As to the al Aqsa Compound, the Israelis said that the Muslim Waqf or Islamic Religious Endowment would continue to run the Aqsa affairs and non- Muslims would be allowed to visit but not to pray there. Since then, elements of religious Zionism have seeped into the Israeli political mainstream. There is a segment of the Jewish Israeli public that openly advocates for the destruction of the Islamic structures and the building of a Third Temple. They remain a marginal group. But there is increasing political support for allowing Jewish visitors to the Compound to pray there. Jerusalemites watch with concern the ostentatious theatrical and provocative visits of radical religious settlers to the Compound and hear the open discussions of designs on al Aqsa. They do not trust Israel at all, with good reason, because they see the political support and the belligerent attitude of the settlers who visit accompanied with heavily armed soldiers.

 *How did the Israelis deal with the UNESCO decision? 

UNESCO is not the US Congress. Even before the recent position statement, the Israel lobby had succeeded in having the US cut off funding for UNESCO. Israel and its supporters tried to delegitimize UNESCO claiming that it denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Israel intentionally conflates Jewish ties to Jerusalem, which are obvious, with Jewish ties to the Aqsa Compound, which are imaginary. Of course, Jews, Christians and Muslims have a connection to Jerusalem but not all of them have a connection to the al Aqsa Compound Sanctuary. Only the Muslims have a claim to the compound, above the ground and below the ground.

*What are the Palestinians doing to defend al Aqsa from Israeli encroachments? 

The Palestinians are concerned that Israel wants to do to al Aqsa what it did to the al Haram al Ibrahimi/Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron/al Khalil. In the name of sharing the Haram al Ibrahimi, Israel has taken over what is chiefly an Islamic holy site and has given minimal rights to Muslims as to worship there. Palestinians fear a repeat of that reality in Jerusalem. The Palestinians who live inside the green line and are Israeli citizens are at the front lines of defending al Aqsa. The Islamic Movement, which Israel has banned, used to organize regular visits to the Aqsa. The Aqsa is always crowded with Muslim worshipers, especially in Ramadan and on Fridays. Individual Palestinians volunteer to serve at the Compound. Israeli Arab Muslims, especially the Jerusalemites, are at the forefront of the defense of al Aqsa.

 *What has the Palestinian leadership done for al Aqsa?

The Palestinian leader Arafat took the PLO back to Palestine. The center of the Palestinian struggle became Ramallah, not Amman or Beirut. When Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, he presumed Israeli good faith and US honest brokering of these Accords. In 2000, in the last days of Bill Clinton’s administration, Clinton tried to have both sides reach a final agreement on all issues. It was not a deal any Palestinian leader, let alone Arafat, would accept. The Israelis offered Palestinian control over the surface of Aqsa, Israeli control under the surface. Arafat rejected the offer. In 2002, taking advantage of the post 9/11 environment, PM Sharon attacked and besieged Arafat’s Compound in Ramallah. Arafat died in 2004, Palestinians suspect that Israel assassinated Arafat.

*What is PA President Abbas doing for Jerusalem?

PA President Abu Mazen is busy building the trappings of a Palestinian state. There is a Palestinian police force, a central bank, a legislative branch and a judiciary. Ramallah is a thriving city full of energy and life. Palestine has an international postal code, a country phone code and a national phone company. President Abbas continues to appeal for international support to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. Despite living in a de facto Israeli prison, Abu Mazen has not given away any rights to Al Aqsa to Israel. Unfortunately, many Arabs and Muslims think attacking the PA and President Abbas is a form of support for the Palestinians. The reality is that there is much Arab and Muslim rhetoric on Jerusalem, even a “Jerusalem day,” but very little action.


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