After Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel became through conquest the occupier of the entire territory of British Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Previously East Jerusalem also known as Arab East Jerusalem, was in the control of Jordan which had occupied it in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 while Egypt had occupied the narrow Gaza strip. While Israel under Ariel Sharon had unilaterally evacuated Gaza along with its 8000 Israeli settlers, it has held on to East Jerusalem and the West Bank pending an overall peace settlement with the Palestinians. Thus more than half a century has elapsed in which the stateless Palestinians of the West Bank have experienced an onerous Israeli occupation.
When the partition of Palestine was decided under UN auspices in 1947, the UN mediator, the well-known Count Folke Bernadotte had proposed a corpus separatum for Jerusalem which would be under international sovereignty. The reason for this arrangement appeared logical to Bernadotte and many other analysts familiar with Palestine, because Jerusalem had strong historical relations with all the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Jews claimed that Jerusalem 3000 years ago was the capital of the Jewish kingdom of David and Solomon. The Christians associated Jerusalem with the life of Jesus Christ whose tomb the Holy Sepulchre is located in Jerusalem. The Byzantine Christians had also occupied Jerusalem for centuries. The Islamic peoples have had a long association with Jerusalem when it was controlled by different Islamic authorities from 637 CE to 1918. The Muslim reverence for Jerusalem as a Holy city is evidenced by the Arabic title given to it for the past 1300 years as Al Quds Al Sharif (The Holy and Noble city).
Bernadotte’s plan could not be put into fruition as he was assassinated in 1948 by a terrorist outfit- the Stern Gang- led by a future Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir. This group and perhaps some other Jews apparently did not want to give up their right to what they considered was their ancient capital. They were interested in exercising their exclusive claim to it. They demonstrated this by annexing East Jerusalem after their victory in the 1967 war and declaring it Israel’s “undivided and eternal” capital. The international community rejected this decision.
After the 1967 war the United Nations in many resolutions especially UNSC 242 and 338, emphasized that the future of Jerusalem would also be decided when the final borders between the Israelis and the Palestinians are delineated. It was thought by some analysts that the city of Jerusalem would be shared between the two adversaries with West Jerusalem being acknowledged as Israel’s capital and Arab East Jerusalem which contains the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, two iconic holy sites for the Muslims, would be the capital of the future Palestinian state in the envisaged two-state solution being promoted by the international community.
Because the status of Jerusalem was contested, none of the major foreign embassies had moved their location to that city pending a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Thus the American embassy was located in Tel Aviv as were almost all other embassies of foreign countries. In 1995 the US Congress passed a resolution that Jerusalem should be recognized by the US as the capital of Israel and concomitantly therefore, the US embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. Successive US presidents had not implemented this Congressional decision knowing that it would ignite a storm of protest not only in the occupied Palestinian territories, but also throughout the Islamic world. The presidents would obtain a six month waiver to the decision on national security considerations. However since US-Israeli relations are informed to a large extent by domestic considerations, the pressure for the US to implement the 1995 Congressional resolution remained constant and unrelenting.
It has fallen to President Trump to declare that the de facto control of Jerusalem by the Israelis since 1967, should be converted into a de jure recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump has also signified that the US embassy in Tel Aviv will now be shifted to Jerusalem following this Trumpian decision.
Of course Trump and his advisors were anticipating protests both in Israel- Palestine and elsewhere at this recognition which flies in the face of international law and UN resolutions. Condemnation of this controversial decision by the Arab and Islamic world was to be expected, but that has been also followed by the Western allies of the US, Britain, France and others. Secretary General of the UN António Guterres and others have chimed in. Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has stated “It is our responsibility to tell Mr. Trump he is wrong”. On his part Trump has tried to mollify the protesters by saying that borders including those relating to Jerusalem are subject to final negotiations between the two parties. This stance however reeks of casuistry and dissimulation as the US has formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It is too early to venture a definitive opinion whether the West Bank Palestinian protests will escalate into a third intifada. The Hamas leader has called for one. Passions are certainly running high as the Palestinians confront the repression by the Israeli police and army. Some analysts suggest that Trump who is under pressure on the investigation of the alleged Russian involvement in his presidential campaign by special counsel Robert Mueller, has taken the decision on Jerusalem as a diversionary measure. The other decidedly important factor identified by observers is Trump’s pandering to his Evangelical and hard line Zionist base. The end result of the US decision is likely to increase further turmoil and chaos in the Middle East region.