Since its formation from the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948, Israel has had a tumultuous relationship with its Arab neighbours, and in particular with the partially recognised sovereign State of Palestine. While this year marks 70 years of the existence of Israel, not a significant lot has been achieved on the fronts of a final territorial settlement with Palestine, who claim to be on the receiving end of harsh treatment meted out by their neighbour with significantly more clout in arguably all spheres. One of the points of conflict that traces its origins back to the UN Resolution itself, is the status of the city of Jerusalem. While the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (Resolution 181) demarcated the city of Jerusalem as corpus separatum, a separated body with special legal and political status, and to be administered by the UN, it never materialised. This was first because of the invasion of the region by neighbouring Arab states and de facto control shifting to respective belligerents, and then because of the Six Day War, where Israel took control over both East and West Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, since 1949, was split between Israeli and Jordanian control, with the western half under the control of the former, and the eastern half, including the Walled City (Old City) resting with the latter. While there was mutual acceptance over the control of their respective sectors, the division had no legal validity. Except the United Kingdom and Pakistan, who recognised Jordanian control of East Jerusalem, no other nation recognised any claims made over the city. Cut to the Six Day War in 1967, which resulted in a decisive Israeli victory and tripled the territory under their control, the Israelis took full control of the previously Jordanian territory of West Bank, and along with it, expanded their control of Jerusalem into the eastern sector as well. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) then began their protests to their rightful settlement in East Jerusalem, they were snubbed. Expelled out of the lands they lived in, under Jordanian protection, they resorted to resentment, through both violent and nonviolent means.
Tensions have since escalated and cooled, with the turn of the millenium bringing in hope, when Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, which was won in the Six Day War with Egypt, and destroyed Israeli settlements in the area. The State of Palestine is currently a non-member observer nation in the UN. There have also been multiple peaceful meetings and dialogue between Israel and the Palestine National Authority, the administrative authority for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, Jerusalem has forever remained a bone of contention, and the status quo has been the same for long. According to the Jerusalem Law, passed by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 1980, “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel”. Over the years, while most countries have never actually accepted this stance, the few who have, have made situations potentially dangerous, with full scale war already a looming threat, given the multiple engagements and skirmishes that have happened in the last 5 years.
Recently, however, it was one nation’s acceptance of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel only, that has threatened the ceasefire most; the United States of America. In an extraordinary decision, reversing years of foreign policy, US President Donald Trump formally announced to the world on 9 December 2017 the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He also added that work would begin to shift the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, where most nations have their embassies to Israel because of the situation, to Jerusalem. While this garnered support from a handful of nations, such as the Philippines, who followed suit, it was heavily criticised by world leaders, the EU, as well as the UN.
Fears had long prevailed about this situation blowing up to extreme proportions, and it looks to be so for now. As expected, the angriest reactions to this came from Palestinians, with demonstrations being held across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Salafi groups, people who adhere to an ultra conservative brand of Sunni Islam, and few of whom have often engaged in Jihadist activities across the Middle East, were among those who fired rockets from Gaza into Israel, even during the festivals of Christmas and Hanukkah. What is sadder is the fact that half the rockets landed within Gaza, causing casualties to their own citizens. Though the ones responsible for the attacks were rounded up by Hamas, Hamas themselves haven’t been the most well behaved too. However, this time, their reasons seem more legitimate than ever. It is mankind’s role to solve conflicts, not driving the knife deeper. 14 of the 15 Security Council members condemned the declaration (no prizes for guessing the 1 member who didn’t); however a resolution calling for the withdrawal of recognition was vetoed by the United States, for a tally of, you guessed it right, 14-1. The flaw of veto powers to select members not being the main point here, the Security Council vote reflected in the General Assembly as well, which voted a staggering 128-9 with 35 abstentions condemning the declaration. Clearly, something is wrong.
As for Israelis themselves, despite the official line being one of pleasure and gratitude, with a good reception in the Knesset as well, not all are happy. Christian churches based in Jerusalem sent a letter to Trump, warning that his move would “yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division”. Deep down, common sense must always prevail over nationalist sentiments, where the latter can thrive only when peace is achieved. Among other things such as demonstrations across the Arab world, protests by pro-Palestinians in New York’s Times Square, and protests outside US Embassies across Europe from Netherlands to Sweden, it cannot be more apparent as to what the overall sentiment is. As much as everyone may despise it, the United States is powerful enough to sway world politics with a 5 minute speech from their President. Stating the very clichèd quote, “With great power comes great responsibility”, may not find a better time than this, among many others in the past. Probably, this tale of one city, may for the better end in two.
By Mainak Mandal