Pray for peace in Jerusalem. May all who love this city prosper. Psalm 122:6
The decision by President Trump to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem generated a sharp reaction. As feared by many opposed to the move, Palestinian rioting and violence broke out in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with several Palestinians killed and many more injured. The U.S. decision was condemned by Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza and opposed by most of the international community, while viewed positively in Israel and praised across most of the political spectrum there. What is the background behind this, what are the issues, and what does it mean going forward?
First some background. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, Jerusalem has served as the capital of Israel. The Israeli Knesset (parliament) resides there and all government activity occurs there. Jerusalem was divided at the end of the 1948 war for Israel’s independence by a truce or “green line”, with Jordan taking control of what is now referred to as “East Jerusalem” and Israel controlling “West Jerusalem”. The Jordanians expelled all Jews, who were a majority of the East Jerusalem population at that time, from East Jerusalem (which included the Old City and Western Wall), destroyed several Jewish synagogues, and desecrated the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, using Jewish gravestones for paving and construction. Jews were denied access to the Jewish Quarter and Jewish holy sites in the Old City. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank for 19 years ending with the 1967 war, with Israel taking control at the end of that war.
It is important to understand that the “green line” is not an international border. The ongoing peace processes and two-state solution call for the parties (Israeli and Palestinian leadership) to negotiate and agree upon borders. The possible division of Jerusalem is an issue for the parties to decide, and an important part of peace negotiations.
The role of the United Nations in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is sometimes not well understood. The UN was established in 1945 with the mission of promoting peace and understanding among nations as stated in its charter. The UN is not a legislative body and has no lawmaking authority, nor does it have the power to establish international borders between countries. UN resolutions are just that: resolutions and proposals (not laws) to promote peace and resolve conflicts. UN resolutions may or may not be adopted by the parties in conflict. The UN’s substantial power lies in its ability to serve as a platform for the most powerful nations to build international coalitions that can exert military force and economic pressure on targeted nations.
With respect to the UN and Jerusalem, a 1947 UN resolution proposed two states with Jerusalem an “international city” governed by the UN. This resolution was never adopted by the parties in the conflict—Arab, Palestinian or Israeli. The subsequent position in recent decades taken by the UN and most of the international community generally proposes dividing Jerusalem into “East” and “West” Jerusalem with Palestine establishing a capital in East Jerusalem and Israel continuing to use West Jerusalem as its capital. Final borders would be determined by the parties through negotiation.
It is important to note that that the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank and the vast majority of the international community, including most Arab states today support a two-state solution with West Jerusalem remaining the capital of Israel. This two-state solution has been PCUSA policy for decades and was resoundingly re-endorsed by the last PCUSA GA in 2016. It is also important to note that this does not preclude East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. US policy statements that came with the embassy announcement reiterated this position. Any division of Jerusalem remains an issue to be decided by the parties, as it should be.
Tragically, it is Palestinians who stand to suffer most from the violence and rioting in the Palestinian territories. Violence does not advance the two-state solution and Palestinian aspirations of dignity and self-determination. It also inhibits the creation of a sound economy in the West Bank as investors seek a stable geo-political situation for their investments. The risk is that the violence produces a division of Jerusalem by Israel building defensive barriers between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. This would lead to more separation, more Palestinian economic hardship, and diminished chances for peace.
Sadly forgotten as the future of Jerusalem is debated are the over 530,000 Jews and over 320,000 Arabs who make Jerusalem their home, the vast majority of whom wish no ill will towards one another. It is they who have the greatest stake in any possible political decision regarding Jerusalem. Of the many voices that want to be heard in this debate, it is theirs that deserves the greatest weight and must be listened to.