Jerusalem: A city divided

Why does Jerusalem matter to so many people?

The Old City was occupied by Israel in 1967. It contains sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims  

For a city of less than one million people, Jerusalem has seen more than its fair share of conflict. In a tumultous 5000-year history, it has come under the control of Jews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Christians, Ottomans, the British, and – most recently – the Israelis.

Jerusalem lies at the heart of three major world religions; it is considered holy by Islam, Judaism and Christianity. While its religious significance has given the city a special place in history, it has also made it the most intractable issue in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Although religious and political conflicts define modern Jerusalem, the city began life long before the major monotheistic faiths were established. The city is thought to have been founded around 3000 BC by the Canaanites who are – ironically – believed to be the ancestors of both Palestinians and Jews.

Around 1000 BC, the city was conquered by David, the second king of the Israelites, who walled it and established it as the seat of his kingdom. His son, Solomon, built the first Jewish temple in the city, making Jerusalem the religious centre of Judaism.

After a period of relative prosperity, revered as a golden age by modern Jews, relations between authorities in Jerusalem and neighbouring kingdoms soured, and in approximately 600 BC the city fell to the Babylonians, who expelled the Jewish population and destroyed the temple.

Turbulent centuries

The city was abandoned for a while, but its repopulation marked the beginning of a series of turbulent centuries during which control over its streets changed hands no less than five times, including another brief spell under Jewish control, before the Romans conquered decisively in AD 6.

Shortly after the Roman conquest, Jesus Christ emerged to spread anti-establishment teachings, which outraged the authorities; eventually he was convicted of false prophecy and crucified in the city. His death, and alleged resurrection, became the central pillar of the Christian religion and Jerusalem found itself at the centre of a second major faith.

The Romans ran Jerusalem until AD 614, when they lost control of the city to the Sasanian empire, which had spread west from what is today Iran. Sasanian rule was brief, and the Byzantines took control in AD 629.

Jerusalem was divided into Arab and Jewish sections when Israel was established  

Less than a decade later, adherents of Islam, a relatively new faith that had emerged from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, conquered Jerusalem and ruled the city for more than 400 years. 

This period saw the construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca, where Islam’s prophet Mohammed was born, and Medina, where he established the faith.

Jerusalem was now of major religious importance to the three major monotheistic faiths, and the seeds of future conflict were sown. 

Jerusalem’s Muslim rulers lost control of the city to Christian crusaders from Europe in the 11th century, but a series of battles over the next 100 years culminated in the Islamic leader Saladin re-establishing control over the city in 1187.

The retaking of Jerusalem marked the beginning of a period of Islamic rule that would last, in one way or another, until the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Divided city

Following the war, Jerusalem was placed under British mandate. The British tried to balance the interests of both the Jewish and Arab populations, but ended up pleasing no-one, and faced regular uprisings from both groups.

When they pulled out in 1947, the continued animosity between Jews and Arabs, coupled with increasing calls for a Jewish homeland, saw the United Nations order the partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs.

Jerusalem was divided, with the west of the city in the newly established state of Israel and the east of the city, abutting the West Bank, under Jordanian control. 

The establishment of Israel led to the mass expulsion of many thousands of Arabs in the area – Palestinians today refer to this forced exile as the Nakba -who fled to refugee camps in the West Bank. Some settled in East Jerusalem and others fled to neighbouring countries.

The UN had envisioned Jerusalem as an international city to be shared between the two ethnic groups. In reality, a bitter division ran through its heart, segregating communities and fostering anger on both sides.

This anger periodically burst into violence, and fighting between Jews and Arabs continued over the coming years. During the Six Day War with Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967, Israel seized and occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank and placed the entire city under central administration.

East Jerusalem has remained under Israeli occupation since.

International law disregarded

The move provoked fury from Palestinians, who resented Israeli control of the Al-Aqsa mosque, and was met with international condemnation.

The United Nations immediately declared Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank as illegal under international law,but the Israelis refused to withdraw, citing security concerns as justification for remaining. 

Meanwhile they began to establish outposts and illegal settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, fundamentally changing the demographics of the city in a bid to bolster their claim for control. According to some estimates, there are now 500,000 Jewish settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The status of other occupied land is considered relatively flexible, but Jerusalem, with its major religious significance to both sides, has proven to be the single largest sticking point in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Palestinians demand that Israel complies with international law and returns to its pre-1967 borders, but Israel has refused to re-divide the city, claiming it as the “eternal capital” of the Jewish state.

The United Nations has continued to protest the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but Israel has ignored a series of UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal.

Instead it has expanded its urban infrastructure in occupied sections of the city, and continues to evict Arabs from their homes to make way for construction projects.

Source : Al Jazeera


More from News
Most Read