Colonial Transformation of a Spiritual City

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Old City of Jerusalem from the Church of the Savior

The Old City of Jerusalem (looking east toward the Mount of Olives ) as seen from the belfry of the Church of St. Savior . Note the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock , top right.

Institute for Palestine Studies, Photograph Collection

Jerusalem is the spiritual and political capital of the Palestinian people. The city’s history, culture, and geographical location also reinforce the importance of the city for the Palestinian people. Not surprisingly, then, the city, and control over it, has become one of the central features in the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinian national movement during the past century.

The basis for the city’s spiritual importance for Palestinians is its centrality and importance in both Islam and Christianity. Following Mecca and Medina , Jerusalem is the third holiest place on earth not only for Palestinian Muslims, but for Muslims all over the world. It was the first qibla, meaning it was toward Jerusalem that Muslims first prayed. It is the site of al-isra’ wa-l-mi‘raj, the miraculous night journey to heaven made by the Prophet Muhammad, during which he tethered al-Buraq, his “fabulous steed,” to a site near the present-day Haram al-Sharif , the Noble Sanctuary. The Haram al-Sharif itself contains two particularly holy Islamic shrines, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock . Jerusalem also contains Islamic libraries, awqaf, smaller mosques, and historic cemeteries such as the Mamilla cemetery .

For Palestinian Christians and other Christians worldwide, Jerusalem is the city associated with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus worshipped in the ancient Hebrew temple in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands over the site of his crucifixion and resurrection, and the Mount of Olives is the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. Mount Zion is associated with the Last Supper as well as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The city boasts a number of other churches and Christian institutions belonging to various Christian communities.

The city is also of spiritual significance to Israelis and Jews throughout the world as well, which has contributed to the centrality of Jerusalem in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It served as the capital for the ancient Hebrew kingdom: the area of the Haram al-Sharif was home to the Temple of Herod (the Hebrews’ second temple), constructed over the spot where Jews (and Christians) believe that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Western Wall , which today comprises the southwest corner of the Haram al-Sharif, is all that remains of a retaining wall of the second temple, and was a site of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer starting in the sixteenth century. Before that Jews prayed on the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem is home to synagogues, yeshivas, and other Jewish religious institutions, and Jews revere the cemetery on the Mount of Olives as the world’s oldest Jewish cemetery.

For Palestinians, Jerusalem is also of tremendous geographic, cultural, and political importance. The city lies in the center of Palestine, along the crossroads to important traditional trading and manufacturing towns such as Hebron , Nablus , Jaffa , and the regions east of the Jordan River . Many of modern Palestine’s most notable schools, literary societies, and libraries have been located in the city. Politically, Jerusalem was the administrative center of independent Ottoman sanjaq (district) that reported directly to Istanbul during the late Ottoman period, as well as the capital of the British administration in Palestine during the period of the Mandate (1922–48). Many of the leading political figures during the Ottoman and Mandate periods hailed from the city, including those from the Dajani, Jarallah, Khalidi, Alami, Husseini, and Nashashibi families. The most significant Palestinian national and religious bodies during the Mandate centered around politicians from the city, including the Arab Executive Committee , the Supreme Moslem Council , and the Arab Higher Committee (Lajna) . Jerusalem was also where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964, and the PLO’s 1988 Declaration of Palestinian Independence identified Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Jerusalem has been deeply impacted by Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of the Zionist Movement , the city’s Jewish population began to grow in the twentieth century. Previously, Jerusalem’s Jewish population during the Ottoman period consisted largely of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (those of post-1492 Spanish origin and of Middle Eastern and North African origin) who long had lived in the city, and pious Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent) who moved to the holy city more recently for religious reasons. In 1922, the British counted 33,971 Jews and 28,112 Palestinians in the city. By the late 1940s, the city’s population stood at approximately 97,000 Jews and 61,000 Palestinians. It should be noted that these numbers related to the administrative limits of the city that were gerrymandered by the British to include every Jewish-inhabited neighborhood in the vicinity, even those several kilometres away, and to exclude several Arab ones near the city.

Zionist immigration and land purchases throughout Palestine stoked political and ethno-religious tensions between Jews and Arabs, which sometimes led to violence in the city, most notably the August 1929 al-Buraq Disturbances . During the 1936 Great Palestinian Rebellion against the British and the Zionists in Palestine, Palestinian guerrilla fighters briefly managed to capture the Old City of Jerusalem in October 1938.

The 1948 War drastically changed the city. Heavy fighting took place in the city, particularly between the Israeli army and the Transjordanian Arab Legion , which entered the city on 18 May 1948. Israeli forces in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter surrendered ten days later. Although the November 1947 UN Partition Plan called for the city to become an international zone, Israel ended up controlling the western part of the city, while Jordan controlled the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem . As a result of the 1948 war, approximately 60,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in Jerusalem by Israeli forces. West Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Baq‘a , Talbiyya , Musrara , Abu Tawr , the German Colony , and Qatamon were largely depopulated of their pre-war Palestinian population, while no Jews remained in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem.

The 1967 War  once again changed Jerusalem in significant ways. Israeli paratroopers captured the Old City on 7 June 1967 after fierce fighting with the Arab Legion. The next day, the Israelis destroyed more than 100 homes and displaced more than 600 Palestinians in the Maghribi Quarter  in order to make room for a large plaza for tourists and Jewish worshippers in front of the Western Wall. On 28 June 1967, Israel adopted legislation annexing East Jerusalem and uniting it under the authority of the city administration of West Jerusalem. The boundaries of the new, united municipality were enlarged greatly in order to include more land that could be settled with Jews, and Palestinian residents of the Jewish Quarter were evicted in order to rebuild a Jewish-only district in the Old City. The swift victory against three Arab states and the conquest of Jerusalem gave a formidable impetus to religious Zionists who saw them as a sign of the coming of the Messiah and regarded it as a divinely ordained duty to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival by “redeeming” Jerusalem and the whole “Eretz Yisrael ” and establishing Jewish settlements.

In the following years, and in addition to settling in the Old City, large settlements outside the walls were established, such as the French Hill , Ramat Eshkol , Ma’alot Dafna , Ramot , Neve Yaakov , and Pisgat Ze’ev . More recently, Jewish settler organizations have began to occupy apartments and buildings in Palestinian neighborhoods such as Silwan , Ras al-Amud , and Shaykh Jarrah . Other settlements like Gilo , Givat Ze’ev , and Ma'ale Adumim were built as an external perimeter in order to surround Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish-only communities.

Concomitant with their settlement activities, Israeli authorities have tried to reduce the number of Palestinians living in the city through neglecting municipal services in Palestinian areas, reducing building permits to a trickle, and confiscating or refusing to renew Jerusalem identity documents of those whom they accuse of failing to live within the city limits for sufficient periods of time. In addition, the construction of the separation barrier and tightened restrictions on Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Jerusalem have severed many of the social and economic networks that previously connected Palestinians in each location to those in the other.

Both Israelis and Palestinians consider Jerusalem their capital, although the PLO only claims East Jerusalem in this regard. The Oslo Agreement of 1993 left all of Jerusalem in Israeli hands and subject to “final status” talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the future. Such talks never really began in earnest, and with the breakdown of negotiations since 2000, the city remains in Israeli hands. Meanwhile, Palestinian Jerusalemites bear the brunt of policies that aim to marginalize them, displace them, and disconnect them from other Palestinians.

Selected Bibliography: 

Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

Boudreault, Jody, Emma Naughton, and Yasser Salaam, eds. U.S. Official Statements: The Status of Jerusalem. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

Cattan, Henry. “The Status of Jerusalem Under International Law and United Nations Resolutions.Journal of Palestine Studies 10, no.3 (Spring 1981): 3-15.

Dumper, Michael. The Politics of Jerusalem Since 1967. Institute for Palestine Studies Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

“Jerusalem.” In Philip Mattar, ed., Encyclopedia of the Palestinians (Rev. ed.). New York: FactsOnFile, 2005.

Jerusalem Quarterly (journal published by the Institute for Jerusalem Studies).

Tamari, Salim, ed. Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighbourhoods and Their Fate in the War. Jerusalem: Institute of Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center, 1999.

Tibawi, A. L.  Jerusalem: Its Place in Islamic and Arab History. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1969.