Jerusalem as The Capital of Israel: What Does It Really Mean?

Donald Trump announced that he intends to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He framed this move as a fulfillment of a promise that previous U.S. presidents had made, but not delivered on. Indeed, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all made reference to their intentions to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel during their election campaigns. Despite the promises that were made, it would appear that all three preceding presidents eventually acknowledged that they could not realistically pursue a peace-plan, while giving in to Israel’s demand on the question of Jerusalem; such are the sensitivities around the holy city.

Given Trump’s track record, it is unsurprising to see that he is willing to jeopardise the any hope of peace in favour of pleasing some of his extremist support base as well as his extremist allies.The move has drawn criticism from Muslim leaders around the world, the Pope, the secretary general of the United Nations, and other world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron. Palestinian Christians were seen today burning photos of Trump, highlighting once again that this conflict goes beyond merely Israeli-Muslim frames of reference. Many commentators are describing the move in terms of it being the final nail in the coffin of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The History of Islamic Jerusalem

The relationship between Muslims and Jerusalem is nearly as old as Islam itself. Muslims initially prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, before a commandment came from God to turn instead towards Mecca. Before the Prophet’s famous ascension to heaven in the mi’raj, he was carried to Jerusalem in the Isra, where he prayed in the Haram al Sharif (the sacred land that contains both the Al-Aqsa mosque, and the Dome of the Rock mosque). This journey sealed the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims forever.

In 637, some years after the death of the Prophet, Muslim expansion had reached within the vicinity of Jerusalem, under the rule of the Caliph Umar. Having surrounded the city, the Muslims anticipated a surrender by the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius. Sophronius refused to surrender the city unless Umar himself came from Madinah to accept the surrender. Umar made the journey and on arrival was given a tour of the holy city.

During this tour, the time for prayer came and Sophronius invited Umar to pray within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Church is amongst the holiest sites of Christianity, believed to contain the area in which Jesus was crucified, as well as his reported tomb, from where he was resurrected. Umar, engaging his faculties of wisdom and courtesy, refused the Patriarch’s request, rightfully fearing that if he was to pray in the Church, future Muslims might decide to convert it into a mosque. Further to this, Umar signed a treaty with the Christians of Jerusalem which included the following:

“He (Umar) has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses…their Churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted”.

The State-Imposed Israeli Jerusalem

It is precisely this spirit of coexistence that has been absent in the Holy city since the Israelis captured it during the Six-Day War in 1967. It should be noted that Islamic Jerusalem was a much kinder place for the regions Jews. While certain practices were discriminatory at certain points during the Islamic history of Jerusalem, on the whole, the treatment of Jews was good. It appears that Israel did not return the favour once the city came under their control. A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) this year stated that Israel had revoked the citizenship of at least 14,595 Palestinians from East Jerusalem, effectively forcing them from the city. Most Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank are regularly denied entry into the city, while prohibitions on Palestinian Muslim men from praying in the Haram al Sharif are all too often in place, infringing on their basic rights.

It is difficult not to view this as a state-imposed policy of demographic engineering. Indeed, HRW reported that Israel’s “Jerusalem Outline Plan 2000” targeted the changing of demographic ratios within the city to be more favourable to Israelis. One way that Israel has strived to do this is to impose bureaucratic blocks on Palestinian cases when seeking residency in Jerusalem, making it more and more difficult for Palestinians to stay, while virtually eliminating the possibility for Jerusalemite Palestinians who reside outside of Jerusalem to return; this would involve making a pledge of allegiance to Israel. HRW noted that international humanitarian law “expressly forbids an occupying power from compelling people under occupation to pledge loyalty or allegiance to it”. At the time of the writing of the HRW report, no other country in the world had recognised Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, home to 66,000 Palestinians. Today, Trump stated his intention to see that change, with the U.S. becoming the first country aside from Israel to recognise this illegal occupation.

The Situation Today As A Freedom Lost

As destructive as Trump’s move is, it merely represents another wretched flower of U.S. policy towards the conflict coming to bloom. It simply does not seem possible for peace to come to Israel and Palestine while one actor is unconditionally backed by the world’s largest power. What might be of gravest concern to Muslim audiences is the question that asks; why does the U.S. feel that it will be able to make this move now without significant reaction from Muslim countries? Already, there are many rumours about some of the most significant Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East giving a greenlight to this move, and turning their back on the Palestinian cause in such grave manner. Again, this capitulation would be befitting of the most recent trends within the region, as significant players seem close to finalising a peace agreement with Israel that does not bring about a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. In layman’s terms, more Arab powers seem on the cusp of tragically selling out the Palestinians. Much of the media reaction has focused on the move as being ill-judged for the threat it poses in terms of reactionary violence. You do not need to be well-read in Edward Said to see the orientalist under-belly of this focus of narrative, dehumanising the Palestinians and framing their actions as violent, rather than using the language of justice, oppression and back-breaking inequality. The move might well provoke violence, but that is not the primary reason it is wrong. Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is both illegal, and ethically abhorrent.

The famous quote from the late Nelson Mandela comes to mind on dark days such as this; “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. Less well-known is Bertrand Russel’s rhetorical question, “How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty?”. Decades later, and we still do not have an answer to the latter. Going back to Mandela, it would seem that all of us lost a significant part of our freedom that day.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

Tamim Mobayed

Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.