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Fact Sheets


Jerusalem

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In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are two related problems of Jerusalem. The first has to do with whether to divide the city between Israelis and Palestinians, and, if so, how. The second has to do with who will own and control the places considered holy. Both issues generate great passion on both sides.

Jerusalem is an ancient city that has changed shape and size over the generations. When the Ottomans controlled the region, the Old City (within high walls) was divided into four quarters (the Armenian, the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim quarters). Outside the walls various neighborhoods grew, and this growth continued under the British mandate (1918-1948). One result of the 1948 War was a division of the city between Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem including the Old City, and Israel, which controlled West Jerusalem. Between the two ran an ugly (concrete) stone and barbed wire divider (creating) an armed no-man's land, and a single crossing point patrolled by the United Nations. The 1967 War resulted in all of Jerusalem coming under Israeli control. Soon after the war ended, Israel expanded the boundaries of the city extensively, declaring east Jerusalem and the expanded areas to be a legal part of Israel (a legal move it has not made regarding (most of) the West Bank or Gaza).

One can think of Jerusalem today as composed of three parts: West Jerusalem, almost entirely Jewish; East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the almost entirely Arab sections of the city; and the newly expanded sections of the city containing the new Jewish neighborhoods and older Arab communities within them, such as Gilo or Ramot. (Though Palestinians sometimes call these new neighborhoods "settlements," general usage leaves that term to denote only the Israeli communities built in Gaza and the West bank, and not in (expanded) Jerusalem.)

As of 2000, the total population of Jerusalem was about 658,000. The population of the whole city is about two thirds Jewish, one third Arab, with the Arab segment having grown as a proportion of the total. Both the Arab and orthodox Jewish populations of Jerusalem have experienced natural growth; the secular Jewish population has declined through emigration. Demographic concerns have thus led the Israeli government to promote housing construction that would increase the population of both secular and Orthodox Jews.

Dividing Jerusalem is a very hot issue involving, sometimes indistinguishably, religion, the Bible (Old and New Testaments), the Koran, nationalism and politics. (It also thus attracts the politically significant attention of Jews, Muslims and Christians from around the world.) For Palestinians, Jerusalem has an ancient religious significance that has translated into a commitment to making east Jerusalem the capitol of their state. For Israelis, Jerusalem is the site of the first and second temples, and the central symbol of sovereignty for a Jewish state. Their commitment to an undivided city comes from the memory of 1948-1967, when the Old City and the eastern part of the city were beyond reach, including the Western Wall (see below). though many Israelis are committed to never dividing Jerusalem, the government of Ehud Barak (1999-2001) at Camp David and at Taba, and various non-governmental actors, have nonetheless explored plans to divide the city. Again, two questions: the first is, where to draw the dividing line? In general the answer has corresponded roughly with what are called the Clinton Bridging Proposals (offered by the President in December, 2000); these allocated the section of the city occupied primarily by Arabs to the Palestinians (i.e. mainly East Jerusalem), and the rest, including the newly created neighborhoods, to Israel. The Old City, which is in East Jerusalem, has also been subject to various allocations, often putting the Jewish Quarter on the Israeli side, the rest on the Palestinian. These formulas are not neat, as there are Jews living among the Arabs in East Jerusalem and Arabs living among the Israelis.

The second question about dividing Jerusalem is, what will be the nature of the border dividing the city? A "hard border" would provide a rigid separation with guarded passthrough points. A "soft border" would provide more fluid passage between the two parts of the city. Though there is a broad consensus in favor of a city in which all citizens feel comfortable moving throughout all its parts, Israeli security concerns make achieving this today very difficult. The issue of control of holy places is primarily about the temple mount (Haram Al-Sharif) and the Western Wall. The Western Wall, where Jews pray, supports a platform on which stands the dome of the rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Thus a holy place for Jews is part of the same physical structure as a holy place for Muslims. In addition, the earth under the mosque, and thus inside the Wall, is important because it structurally supports both the Wall and the mosque, and because it may contain archeological relics with historical and political implications. There are two battlegrounds: sovereignty, which refers to legal ownership, and control, which refers to practical administrative management. Disagreements have raged over both. As the Western Wall/Temple Mount is located in the heart of East Jerusalem, a division of the city that allocates East Jerusalem to the Palestinians would raise the question of Jewish access to the Western Wall.

Formulas have been put forward that would guarantee access to the holy places to all, which would seem to satisfy the expressed needs of each. But many on both sides have refused to allow the other side any position that might, potentially, lead to exclusion or limitation of access. As the Israelis and the Palestinians have no trust in each other, any plan that gives one side any chance to interfere with the other's freedom of access to worship will be opposed. At present, the Israelis control both the Wall and the Temple Mount. Ordinarily they allow a Muslim organization to control the Mount and the many Muslims who come to worship there, though the Israelis do step in when they perceive security to be at issue.

There are also a number of Christian holy places throughout Jerusalem, including the site of the last supper, the Via Dolorosa, and the site of Jesus' crucifixion. Christian authorities have complained often that they are not adequately represented in the negotiations though they are seriously affected, in general, Christian interests have played only a small role in the conflict.

With all the conflict Jerusalem has endured, it is important not to forget that it is also a city of great dramatic beauty. Its fascination is not solely the product of its contentious history. Jerusalem has been considered holy by many peoples, including ancient nations that predate biblical history. To this day, people in all parts of the world love and revere Jerusalem as an inspiration, both for what it is physically and for what people have imagined it to be.

Prepared by David Matz, director of the graduate program in dispute resolution at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

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