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On Monday, May 14, the United States celebrated the official opening of its new embassy location in Jerusalem, with a televised speech by American President Donald Trump, a massive guest list, and expressions of joy and success from both the American and Israeli administrations, detailed by Vox. A hundred kilometers away, however, the reaction to this diplomatic move was decided different: Palestinian protests along the Gaza border fence, which have been ongoing at varying levels of intensity since late March, reached new heights, with as many as 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers by Tuesday morning. Vox posted an article contrasting side-by-side images of Jerusalem and Gaza, and the discrepancy seems almost irreconcilable. How did it come to this, smiles and paparazzi in Jerusalem but bullets and tire-fires in Gaza? Why does Jerusalem matter so much, and where do we go from here?
The heated contestation of Jerusalem is not new; in fact, it is tied in to the creation of the Israeli state and the seventy years of changing borders between Israel and Palestine. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the division of the Palestinian territories sparked the conflict, with increasing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory throughout the 20th century driven by the Arab-Israeli Wars leading to the current situation where the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain the only Palestinian territories left, and these are under harsh blockade or occupation. Known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) or Judea and Samaria (the Israeli administrative term), Palestinian land and rights to land have been hotly contested since the mid-twentieth century, and conflict over how to the solve the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been fierce. Both Palestinians and Israelis make historical claims about the entire territory, yet no single spot is more of a flashpoint than that of Jerusalem, which both people claim as their rightful capital. Jerusalem, therefore, can be seen not only as an element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also as an seminal issue: there can be no peace until Jerusalem is solved, and yet Jerusalem is an issue that is seemingly unsolvable.
The current protests in Gaza are an escalation of protests that began in late March as part of a planned “right of return” demonstration that was also a protest against the Israeli land, air, and sea blockade of Gaza that began in 2007 following the election of Hamas, which Israel considers to be a terrorist organization. Since the rise of Hamas and the imposition of the blockade, Gaza has become a prison for its inhabitants: electricity, water, and employment are all in short supply; of the two border crossings, one is tightly controlled by Israel while the other, controlled by Egypt, is rarely opened. Gaza has slipped deeper and deeper into a humanitarian crisis and its inhabitants have grown increasingly angry and desperate. On March 30, 2018, tens of thousand of Palestinians gathered on the Gaza-Israeli border as part of the annual Land Day protests, which, according to Haaretz, began in 1976 in protest of Israeli occupation of and expansion into Palestinian land. Despite the annual occurrence of these protests, Israeli officials were more concerned than in the past, citing the large tent camps built along the border and the huge numbers of protesters expected.
The protest went on as expected and, on March 31, it was announced that 17 Palestinians had been killed and as many as 1400 wounded during the protests after Israeli soldiers fired live ammunition into the crowds. Protests along the border continued despite the casualties and, following the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, at least 50 more Palestinians were killed and 2700 injured while protesting along the border. These events have caused global protests and censure of Israel and are themselves indicative of the central importance of Jerusalem as capital to both Israel and Palestine.
Jerusalem itself, although claimed by both Israel and Palestine as their capital, is in truth the capital of neither and remains heavily disputed. Although both the UN and the EU have called for the city to have sovereign status as an international city administered by the UN, the Six-Day War in 1967 saw Israel claim the entirety of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, which had until that point been controlled by Jordan. Israel claimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1980, a move that was widely condemned by the international community. Palestine similarly claims Jerusalem (or, at least) East Jerusalem, as its capital, although the Palestinian National Authority has in the past been willing to negotiate on the status of West Jerusalem, or the possibility of keeping the contested land as an open city. Despite these small areas of maneuverability, Jerusalem is and has been a wicked problem for decades.
Enter the new US Embassy. Given that Jerusalem was already contested, why the should the United States’s decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem matter so much? Because, despite whatever official language surrounds the move, the implicit message is clear: by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the US has signaled that it agrees with Israel’s claim to the city as its capital, dispossessing the Palestinians and going against decades of UN-organized international action to avoid giving even the appearance of approval for Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Furthermore, as is often the case in international affairs, where the US leads, others follow: on Wednesday, May 16, Guatemala announced it would also move its embassy to Jerusalem, and Paraguay soon followed suit. Romania, the Czech Republic, and Honduras are also allegedly considering making the move, which, though politically risky, is much less provocative now that the US has taken the plunge.
Taken in this light, the desperation of the Palestinian protests, which also coincide with the 70th anniversary of either the creation of Israel or the Nakbah (the Catastrophe), depending on which side of the line you stand on, are deeply understandable. Dreams of a sovereign Palestinian state seem to be slipping away and the world has watched on while not only the future but also the very existence of Gaza have faded and done seemingly… nothing. True, UN officials and world leaders have condemned the violence in Gaza, condemning Israel for the high numbers of civilian casualties, but the US on Tuesday prevented an official condemnation by the UN Security Council, acting as it has in the past to shield Israel.
The UN Human Rights Council, acting on authority separate from that of the UNSC, moved today to open an international war crimes investigation into Israel’s actions; despite this beacon of interest from the international community, it is unlikely that this investigation will do much if any good. The commission is not required to turn over any findings or decisions until March 2019, by which time the issue of Jerusalem and Palestinians’ rights there, and indeed in the entirety of Gaza, may be a moot point.
So the question remains: what is to be done? How does the international community solve the unsolvable problem of Jerusalem, contested so hotly by Israel and Palestine, representing both peoples’ history, sovereignty, and state ideals? Israel has staked its claim on the entirety of Jerusalem, and the current US administration, at least, seems willing to support that claim. Palestine, too, desires to claim the ancient city as its capital, but has in the past been more receptive to the idea of a shared or even open, international city.
And this, perhaps, may be the only solution that could conceivably work: Jerusalem not as the political capital of either Israel or some future Palestinian state, but rather as a historical and cultural capital to both, and to the world. The world’s three main monotheistic religions claim Jerusalem as a holy site, and the land is tied up in the essential history of much of the ancient world. Such a treasure should be open to all, not jealously guarded as a political game piece. Such a future would take the combined efforts of the UN, the general international community, and the willing goodwill of both the Israel and Palestinian governments and people, which makes it, no doubt, a pipe dream.
If Jerusalem is an essential puzzle that must be solved before other Israeli-Palestinian issues can be tackled, it is also a microcosm of the conflict itself: messy, hopelessly entangled, and wicked-a problem wherein every solution creates more problems than initially existed.
Changing the outcome of the Jerusalem issue is much like changing the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it requires an acknowledgement that what has been done in the past has clearly not worked, and that new solutions must be tried in the future. Yes, it requires checks on Israeli actions, which have incontrovertibly gone too far; but it also requires global powers like the US to check their own actions and examine how those actions affect the relations and conflicts between other states. In short, the problem calls for a paradigm shift; we cannot solve the world’s wickedest problems if all we can see are the same wicked solutions that have been used and watched fail for decades.