THE most fraught conflict in the world for 70 years has just taken a turn for the worse.
Last Wednesday, United States President Donald Trump announced that his country’s embassy will be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
It effectively means the US now regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. More significantly, it marks the disavowal of the last vestiges of Palestinian sovereignty over the city that is sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The announcement triggered waves of violent protests not only in occupied Palestine, Arab and Muslim-majority countries, but also across Europe and the rest of the world.
Four Palestinians in Gaza have been killed so far – two by air strikes and two by bullets – while over a thousand have been injured. The bloodshed smells like the start of another intifada.
At the crux of the rage is the 144,000sq m compound, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to the Jews as Temple Mount.
It comprises the silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque, the gilded Dome of the Rock and several other structures within its four walls. Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina, was built after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century. The Dome of the Rock overlooks the Western Wall – Judaism’s holiest place.
The original walls are believed to have been around the summit of Mount Moriah – the place where Abraham was tested to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God.
It is also reputedly the place where King Solomon built the First Temple around 1,000 BC, and where King Herod restored the Second Temple which was destroyed in 70 AD by Roman Emperor Titus.
Christians believe Jesus preached there and was crucified outside its walls. Tragically, this hallowed hill is also the most volatile place in the world, since the dawn of civilisation to the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state incorporating the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, however, regards all of Jerusalem as its capital but the rest of the world does not.
Before Israel’s creation in 1947, the United Nations ruled that the city would be a corpus separatum (separate body) under international rule. For seven decades the US has, albeit often reluctantly, complied with international law on the position of Jerusalem.
The UN did not recognise Israel’s conquest of West Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem two years later.
Even after Israel occupied East Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967, together with West Bank and Gaza, and after Israel’s Knesset passed a law 13 years later claiming that Jerusalem, complete and united, was the capital of Israel, the status remained unchanged.
With Resolution 36/120 in 1981 and subsequent decisions, the UN General Assembly nullified all legislative, judicial, and administrative steps taken by Israel to change the character of East Jerusalem, including illegal settlements, the separation wall, and other unfair, apartheid-like policies towards Palestinians.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice stated that all actions taken by the occupying power to change the status and demographic composition of East Jerusalem were invalid.
But in one fell swoop, Trump disregarded all these, jeopardising hopes of a just and sustainable solution to the Palestinian issue.
While the transfer of the embassy reflects the US’ long-standing policy, with Congress even having passed a law for this in 1995, previous US presidents postponed implementation, knowing that it contradicted international law and posed a severe threat to peace, security in the region and beyond.
In its editorial last Friday, Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning oldest newspaper, aptly described Trump’s move as “a poisoned gift.”
“The joy of right-wing and centrist leaders is short-sighted. Violating the status quo in Jerusalem, like expanding the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, is moving Israel further from the only possible solution – the two-state solution – and increasing its isolation in the world,” it noted.
While Trump’s decision was hailed by his support base of evangelical voters, who gave him 81% of their vote in the 2016 US presidential election, Christians in Jerusalem do not share the fervour.
A day before the announcement, the heads of local churches wrote to Trump, pleading for the US to continue recognising the international status of Jerusalem, adding that sudden changes would cause irreparable harm.
They said the city could be shared and fully enjoyed when a political process liberates the hearts of all people who live within it from the conditions of conflict and destructiveness that they are experiencing.
Pope Francis also expressed alarm over the decision, saying: “I pray to the Lord that such identity be preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the entire world, and that wisdom and prudence prevails to avoid adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts.”
As chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat described it, Trump had delivered a clear message that the two-state solution is over.
“Now is the time to transform the struggle to one of one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea,” he said, inferring the likelihood of another prolonged conflict in the occupied territories and the region.
Unfortunately, with Trump’s policies hinged on religious beliefs rather than practical political realities, the world does not expect this US president to be concerned about this, whatever the consequences.
Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Havelock Ellis: The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.