The City on a Hill: Jerusalem Divided
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Executive Director
The present violence in Israel/Palestine is the predictable result of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, significant military advantage, and its willingness to tolerate relatively little damage for the sake of preserving the status quo of occupation. Until the violence escalates, as it has in recent days, the world pays little attention despite taking place in land considered sacred by the three Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In May, Jewish settlers, who have long used Israeli domestic laws to forcibly transfer Palestinians from their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, pushed to climax a court order to evict 58 Sheikh Jarrah residents, including 17 children, from their homes on the basis that the land under their apartments had been owned by a Jewish benevolent trust in the 19th century.
These Jewish settlers have no family connection to that trust, but Israeli law allows them to become trustees and then “re-claim” land that had been owned by Jews in East Jerusalem at any time before 1948. This and many other Israeli laws allow Jewish Israelis to displace Palestinians—or demolish their dwellings as prelude to expulsion—within Jerusalem and across Green Line Israel. The systemic dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem today is carried out under major one-way Israeli domestic laws enacted as early as Absentee Property law of 1950 (long before the 1967 war) and as recently as 2017 (the “Kamenitz laws”). However, there are no Israeli laws that allow Palestinians to return to lands they were displaced from either in 1948 or since 1967. Similar “legal” transfers of Palestinians’ land are happening elsewhere in Jerusalem, notably in two areas of Silwan. Israeli settlement policies are another example of ways Israeli laws are biased against Palestinians.
As the May 1 court decision to finally implement the eviction transfer approached, there were demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah by Palestinian residents and their Israeli and international allies. Peaceful demonstrations were increasingly attacked with violence by both Israeli police and Israeli ultranationalists. Omer Cassif, Israeli Knesset member, was beaten twice by police, becoming front-page news in Israel. Israeli police and ultranationalist violence increased in Sheikh Jarrah after violence around the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif. Ramadam is the holiest time of year for Muslims, making dear worship at Islam’s third holiest site. Jerusalem Day celebrates Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, allegedly reunifying it. Ramadan and Jerusalem Day’s alignment this year were two ingredients in this recipe for disaster. Palestinians responded with increased demonstrations in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and across Green Line Israel. The combination of all of these factors exploded.
The recent flare up included stun grenades thrown by Israeli police into al-Aqsa mosque during prayers, Hamas threatening and then firing rockets in response to events in Sheikh Jarrah and on the Temple Mount, and Israeli ultranationalist provocations, were all proximate causes of the present explosion of fighting gripping the news. But this is only the latest round of violence that has regularly escalated every couple of years for more than a decade. The only differences this time are the increased destructiveness of Hamas missiles and Israeli airstrikes; and the advent of fighting within Green Line Israel between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli proteseters.
A shared Jerusalem has long been the stated goal of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, whether in a Jerusalem exclusively under Israeli control, or in a Jerusalem as capital to an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. However, Israeli policy, from the various discriminatory laws aimed at displacement of Palestinians, to the military occupation of the West Bank and police occupation of East Jerusalem and Hamas’ rockets, are just some of the ways the ongoing conflict continues to threaten a shared Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is shared by three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but Israeli policies make it less and less shared each day by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Israel’s “legal” discrimination and displacement efforts at Jewish supremacy in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and inside Green Line Israel instead produce religious fanaticism among Israelis and Palestinians alike, a systemic threat to the security, even the very lives, of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
To break this cycle of violence, Israel must end the occupation and its enduring legal oppression. Israel’s government has presented the occupation as temporary, but it has lasted more than 50 years. The Interim Transition in the various Oslo Accords is still interim more than 20 years later, and there has been no positive improvement over the past decade or more.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should condemn the underlying causes of these threats to peace: occupation, land dispossession, and more. As as an evangelical pastor and the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), I call on the UNSC, including the United States government, to take strong and decisive action to maintain peace in the Holy City of Jerusalem, and to protect all of God’s children, Israeli and Palestinian alike. The “legal” forcible transfer of Palestinians in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and inside Green Line Israel must end.
Such UNSC action requires diving into long-term Israeli practices, not just the violence of the day. The dispossession of the families in Sheikh Jarrah at issue now, for example, is the end result sought by Israeli settlers in a lawsuit they filed in 1974 to dispossess Palestinian owners and residents from the buildings. Similar displacements, leading to Israeli settlers moving in after the forced transfers, have taken place in East Jerusalem often over the past two decades, 385 Palestinians displaced in 2020 alone.
If actions against sharing Jerusalem continue, the Holy City will continue sliding from light on the hill to a lit series of firecrackers, with the only questions being the length of time between explosions and their intensity. The Holy Land will continue experiencing an unholy maintenance of occupation by force, only limited by violent interventions. The Security Council must go beyond managing violence, to opposing root causes of violence in order to build lasting peace.