15 August 2000

Explaining Israel's Policy on Jerusalem: 1948, 1967, 2000

Gerald M. Steinberg

The Camp David negotiations that took place in July 2000 focused attention on the status of Jerusalem. While a number of proposals have been presented that are based on various forms of shared or overlapping sovereignty, as this background briefing will explain, these proposals do not come to grips with the underlying Israeli and Jewish concerns. The emphasis on maintaining the unity of the city, preventing renewed desecration and destruction of Jewish sites, and insuring unimpeded access to the areas of central religious and historic importance, is the result of the traumas of the past, and, in particular, the legacy of the 1948-1967 period. During this time, when Jewish Jerusalem was destroyed and desecrated, the agreements insuring free access and the norms protecting religious sites were completely ignored, not only by the Palestinians and Jordanians, but also by the international community. As a result, for Israelis and Jews, the legacy of these events remains the central factor in evaluating proposals to change the status of Jewish East Jerusalem.

A Brief Religious and Historic Overview

Behind the various claims and counterclaims regarding Jerusalem lie thousands of years of tortured history, in which conquering armies and leaders have come and gone. The three monotheistic religions agree on the starting point, over 3000 years ago, when King David fulfilled the injunction and made Jerusalem the center of Jewish political and religious life, as described in the Bible. For the next 1000 years, with the exception of a brief period of exile following the Babylonian conquest, the city remained under Jewish control, as the center of the nation and the culture.

After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and during the 19 centuries that followed, Jews continued to pray for the return and restoration of Zion (Jerusalem). As political and economic conditions allowed, many did return, sometimes individually and occasionally in groups, and the Western Wall of the Second Temple, which remained largely intact and became the focus of pilgrimage. Synagogues were built in the Old City, and other institutions of learning and religious life were established. During the Crusades, the Jewish community in Jerusalem was slaughtered, and when the Crusaders left, some Jews began to rebuild and return. For the remainder, although scattered around the world, Jerusalem remained the central focus of Jewish hopes and prayers.

The 1947/8 War and the Capture of the Jewish Quarter

Jewish Jerusalem was a primary target of the attack during the war that accompanied the founding of Israel. In the fighting that began following the UN Partition Resolution on November 27, 1947, Palestinian forces blocked the access road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and numerous efforts to end this blockade failed, with significant casualties. The full-scale attack began with the departure of the British forces and the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 15, 1948. On May 28, the Arab Legion completed the capture of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, including the Western Wall (the major remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans over 2000 years ago, and the holiest sites in the Jewish religion.) The Legion's commander, Abdallah el-Tal, recalled that "The operations of calculated destruction were set in motion....Only four days after our entry into Jerusalem the Jewish Quarter had become a graveyard" (Abdallah el-Tal, Disaster of Palestine, Cairo 1959). The Jews that survived surrendered and were forced to leave their homes. From 1948 until June 1967, Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire, concrete walls, and other barriers, and Jordanian snipers along the cease-fire line made sure that the Israelis on the other side of the line stayed alert.

The Systematic Desecration of the Jewish Holy Places

After the Arab Legion captured the Jewish Quarter, the destruction, desecration, and systematic looting of Jewish sites continued. 57 ancient synagogues, libraries and centers of religious study were ransacked and 12 were totally and deliberately destroyed. Those that remained standing were defaced, used for housing of both people and animals. Appeals were made to the United Nations and in the international community to declare the Old City to be an 'open city' and stop this destruction, but there was no response. This condition continued until Jordan lost control of Jerusalem in June 1967. (Terence Prittie, Whose Jerusalem? Frederick Muller Limited: London 1981; Peter Schneider and Geoffrey Wigoder, Jerusalem Perspectives 1976.)

In addition, thousands of tombstones from the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives were used as paving stones for roads and as construction material in Jordanian army camps. Parts of the cemetery were converted into parking lots, a filling station, and an asphalt road was built to cut through it. The Intercontinental Hotel was built at the top of the cemetery.

Violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement

These acts of deliberate desecration and destruction, designed to obliterate the long history of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, were also blatant violations of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement, signed on 3 April 1949. Article VIII of this agreement stipulated the establishment of a Special Committee, "composed of two representatives of each Party...for the purpose of formulating agreed plans" including "free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives". The Israeli press reported that "There is...a good chance that roads to the Holy Places will be opened so that Jews may be able to go to the Wailing Wall this Passover. The problem of access to the Holy Places has been left to the local military authorities to arrange, and there seems to be enough goodwill on both sides to make this possible."

This did not take place, and these clauses of the Armistice Agreement were never honored. Promises continued to be made, and John Bagot Glubb (the British commander of the Arab Legion) pledged that "Jerusalem's Arab and Jewish populations would be two separate cities 'with free trade and exchange between each other.'...The Arabs would be perfectly willing to allow the Jews to have access to their shrines, notably the Wailing Wall, now inside the Arab-held Old City." Although there were numerous discussions of this issue, and Israeli complaints, the Jordanians refused to honor the agreement, and the UN did not pass any resolutions against these blatant violations of basic international norms.

During this period, on Tisha b'Av, the High Holidays, and during the three pilgrimage holidays when Jews traditionally gather to pray at and near the Wall and Temple Mount, Israelis emphasized the systematic violation of Article 8 of the Armistice Agreement. Officials and public groups renewed the appeal to the UN, the U.S., and the "great powers" to intervene and force Jordan to honor the commitments of Article 8, and end its refusal to allow religious Jews access to the Wailing Wall, "the most holy relic recognized by the Jewish religion."

In the Knesset, Israeli political leaders decried the fact that "This abomination had not shocked the world, which was so steeped in materialism that there would soon be no room left for the very concept of holiness." On a few occasions, Jews were caught and detained when they attempted to cross the cease-fire line that divided the city, in order to pray at the Western Wall.

In 1954, the head of the British delegation to the World Congress asked General Vagn Bennike, U.N. Chief of Staff, to convey a request to permit a small group composed primarily of American and British citizens "to cross into the Old City to offer prayers at the Western (Wailing) Wall". Similar requests were addressed to American officials. In response to one such request, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade cited the "unfortunate tension" between Israel and Jordan, concluding that a "practical arrangement can not be worked out". In 1956, Israel asked Maj.-Gen, E. L. M. Burns, Chief of Staff of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, to raise the issue of Article VIII violations and free access to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem with the Jordanians and their British mentors, but without results.

The United Nations was of no assistance in this issue, and ignored the discrimination and violations of the Armistice Agreement. In presentations before UN bodies, Abba Eban pointed out that although the Christian and Moslem Holy Places were freely accessible to Moslem and Christian worshippers, "the Wailing Wall, the most hallowed sanctuary of Judaism and the most ancient shrine in the entire city is barred to all access by worshippers despite solemn agreements and undertakings." Intense theoretical debates on the no-longer relevant proposals for the internationalization of Jerusalem continued, while the Israeli protests regarding the desecration and inaccessibility of Jewish Jerusalem were ignored. The Vatican also failed to respond to the numerous requests to intervene in order to allow Jews to visit their religious sites. In 1964, while Pope Paul VI and his entourage were able to cross freely from Israel into occupied Jerusalem in order to pray at Christian religious sites, Israelis and Jews could only watch from the other side of the barbed wire and the walls of the Old City.

The Return to Jerusalem - 1967

The outbreak of the 1967 War was unrelated to Jerusalem, but followed a long buildup and many other contributing factors. However, once the Jordanian army (under Egyptian command) began to attack across the cease fire line, Jerusalem became a focus. As Israel engaged Jordanian troops on the West Bank, and overran major military bases, the Old City of Jerusalem was also taken by Israeli troops. The barbed wire and barricades that divided the city were removed, the Jewish Quarter and the area of the Western Wall again became accessible to Jews, and hundreds of thousands visited these areas in the next few days. Rebuilding began in the destroyed Jewish Quarter. However, the Israeli government was careful to safeguard the religious activities of Moslem and Christian communities in Jerusalem.

Although 33 years have gone by since then, and the Jewish Quarter is again filled with activity, the scars of the occupation and desecration remain. There has been no accounting, no admission of responsibility, and no repentance. Instead, Palestinians and their supporters have continued in their efforts to rewrite history and to erase the central link between the Jewish people and the City of Jerusalem. Indeed, every repetition of the phrase "Arab East Jerusalem" reinforces the Israeli determination to reject formulas that would turn the clock back to May 1948.

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Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Director of the Program on Conflict Resolution and Negotiation Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.