Jerusalem: The Stumbling Block of the Last Decade

The first decade of the twenty-first century has proven to be disastrous for Palestinians. Negotiations efforts resulted in a dramatic blow as historic leaders and emerging leaders were killed, assassinated and imprisoned. Worst of all, the scourge of internal strife returned to Palestinians in the form of the destructive Hamas-Fateh division.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a first, relatively non-violent Palestinian uprising and a breakthrough mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel; however, the first ten years of the third millennium were violent and destructive. It seems that the decades of hard work and sacrifice exhibited by Palestinians, Israelis and international supporters of peace evaporated overnight.

One year after the first intifada broke out on November 15, 1988, PLO delegates at the nineteenth session of the Palestine National Council supported Yasser Arafat's declaration of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to live alongside Israel. Five years later Arafat shook hands with the hard-line Israeli prime minister, Yitzhaq Rabin in a gesture that many thought was the beginning of a serious peace process.

At the time, President Bill Clinton, who observed that handshake, spent the last days of his two-term presidency fruitlessly pushing for an agreement at Camp David. A final effort to reach an agreement in the Red Sea resort of Taba brought the parties closer than ever to achieving the goal, but again to no avail. At that point, violent confrontations had erupted and since then, talks and negotiations have been replaced by failed attempts to resolve the conflict through violence. Perhaps the biggest failure of the politicians was that they were unable to provide hope to their people and as a result were unable to stand up to those who tried to take violent shortcuts to resolve the conflict.

The reasons for the breakdown of the Camp David II talks have been discussed ad nauseam during over the past decade. Jerusalem, and not the right of return was the reason for the summit's failure. Indeed, if there is one issue that has permeated and defeated all efforts to achieve peace, it is Jerusalem.

It was because of Jerusalem that then Israeli leader Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to al-Aqsa mosque in 2000. His visit was met with angry protests but, unlike the prevailing Israeli narrative, it seems the intifada did not start because of this visit. It is arguable that the intifada broke out because of the brutality that Israeli security personnel used on angry demonstrators. Seven years after the famous White House handshake and 13 years after the eruption of the first intifada, Palestinians were angry at the absence of a clear path toward an end to occupation and an ever-expanding Israeli settlement effort. Then tens of Palestinian demonstrators were gunned down simply because they protested Sharon's visit.

Jerusalem continues to be a stumbling block. As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to an end, the eastern part of the city has been surrounded by an eight-meter high concrete wall and the number of demolitions of Palestinian homes in the city has increased sharply. Over 4,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites have been denied their birthright to reside in the holy city.

Meanwhile, Israel seems to be attempting to Judaize East Jerusalem, especially in the Sheikh Jarrah area, moving Jews in and non-Jews out. The settlement freeze issue, which has become the major impediment to the return to peace talks, is now stuck on the Israeli refusal to accept its application in occupied East Jerusalem.

The decade has certainly not been positive for Palestinians and with its violence, the absence of negotiations and the special focus on East Jerusalem, many more problems are likely to arise. This will be unavoidable if the issue of Jerusalem is swept under the carpet.

Ironically, while the issue has been the major obstacle to a breakthrough in this intractable conflict, a number of efforts have and continue to be exerted to find solutions. The latest of these efforts is led by a number of veteran Canadian diplomats and researchers who have correctly zoomed in on the need to resolve the status of the one square kilometer Old City.

Whether their hard work bears any fruit will depend on the political will to find non-violent solutions to address the conflict. Whether it is borders, Jerusalem, the right of return, settlements or security arrangements, all parties involved in the conflict must know that there is no military or violent solution to the issue. Non-violent solutions require empathy and sympathy as well as justice and fairness. If we have learned anything in this past bloody decade in Palestine and Israel, it is that violence only begets violence.

Published 4/1/2010 ©