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The "Religiousization" of the conflict in Jerusalem

By Mairav Zonszein and Aziz Abu Sarah
Crossposted from commongroundnews.org

Jerusalem – Jerusalem, home to Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and highly significant to Palestinians and Israelis alike – continues to be a crucial focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Holy Basin in Jerusalem is home to some of the most sacred sites to all three religions, including the Western Wall, a remnant from the Second Temple and the holiest place in Judaism, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Sovereignty, freedom of movement and the symbolism of the city are therefore very important to Palestinians and Israelis, both of whom see Jerusalem as their nation’s capital.

There have always been religious motives for the conflict over Jerusalem, but in recent years the religious-historical justifications are trumping political ones, and Jewish and Muslim extremists are using Jerusalem as a rallying point.

Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six-Day War in 1967, it has been building and expanding Jewish neighbourhoods beyond the Green Line and as of the 1990s it has been settling Jews in the middle of densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Organisations such as Ateret Cohanim and Elad promote the Jewish purchase of property in Palestinian neighborhoods, portraying it as redemption of Israel’s land. Ateret Cohanim is a religious seminary that acquires property in the Old City’s Muslim quarter. They use the religious significance of this area for political gains, presenting it as a mitzvah(religious deed) to displace Palestinians from their homes.

Elad, founded in 1987, runs the City of David archaeological tourist site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Tourists who visit there are excited about seeing where King David supposedly once roamed, but are unaware of the fact that not only are the region’s archaeological findings questionable, but Palestinian homes were expropriated inside the City of David to “resettle” Jews.

View of Silwan from City of David, East Jerusalem (Photo: Mairav Zonszein)

The Jewish religious settlement project has generated similarly one-sided responses by Muslims. To some Muslims these groups represent a new “crusade” against Islam itself. One of the leading groups countering the “Judaisation of Jerusalem” is the Islamic Movement in the North of Israel, which has been making strong inroads in Jerusalem. Like Hamas, the Islamic Movement fills the vacuum created by the absence of Israeli government services in East Jerusalem and the prohibition on the Palestinian Authority to take action. It has gained strong support from the Arab community by launching the “Al-Aqsa in Danger” campaign, which highlights the importance of the mosque as a unifying symbol.

Such groups capitalise on the fear of the local residents confronted with growing settlement and security activities in the city and the municipality’s neglect of Palestinian residents. They have positioned themselves as the defenders of Islam and Jerusalem and have quickly won local support by providing charity and infrastructure.

Both Muslim and Jewish groups have been denying each other religious and historical heritage in Jerusalem. A recent study by the Palestinian Authority (PA) claimed that Jews have no historical or religious heritage in Jerusalem. However, the PA leadership was quick to dismiss the study and its findings, a move which constitutes a shift away from previous trends of claiming exclusive rights to Jerusalem.

The change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political conflict over identity, nationality and land to a conflict being led by extreme religious groups for political gains is a dangerous shift that should be worrying, especially for mainstream religious leaders. The more people see this conflict in starkly religious terms, the less likely they will be to accept compromise.

Jerusalem has the potential to be a city of peace and coexistence as mentioned in the holy books. This has been exemplified by efforts of non-violent protest and education, such as the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, comprised of residents of Wadi Hilweh who seek to effectively communicate information about their struggle to retain their land, and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, which has been bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to protest the settlements in East Jerusalem every week for the last year.

Such groups must be strengthened so that Jerusalem’s potential to bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together in peace can be realised.

* Mairav Zonszein (972mag.com) is an American Israeli journalist, blogger and activist based in Jerusalem. Aziz Abu Sarah (azizabusarah.wordpress.com), a Palestinian from Jerusalem, is Director of Middle East projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and winner of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Common Ground journalism. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

This article was commissioned by Common Ground News and originally appeared on its website.

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    1. Ben Israel

      Some corrections:

      (1) Jerusalem was never the “home” of Islam. Islam started in Arabia and its holiest places are there.

      (2) While it is true that Christianity started in Jerusalem, none of its various churches has its headquarters there.

      (3) Jews were not only settling “densely populated Arab areas” in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, they were doing the same for centuries before 1948.

      (4) The Arab-Israeli conflict is not just NOW beginning to develop a religious overtone, religious conflict has always been at the HEART of the conflict. It is true that relatively secular pan-Arabists like Nasser and the Syrian Ba’thists, along with Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization used secular and Leftist/Marxist revolutionary slogans in their fight against Israel, but these were primarily directed to getting support in the West and the Communist bloc. In internal propaganda, the religious aspect of the conflict was always stressed. The reason the religious arguments have come to the forefront on the world stage is due to the political bankruptcy of the secular Pan-Arabist and Marxist revolutionary movements, which are seen to have failed to confront Israel and the arguments by the Islamist leaders that this failure was due to the abandonment of Islamic religous principles by the Arab/Muslim forces confronting Israel. The main revolutionary forces and countries confronting Israel, i.e. HAMAS, HIZBULLAH, Iran and increasingly Islamist Turkey and they are setting the tone with their militant Islamist ideology and rhetoric. It is now that the true nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is coming to the fore and it is leaving many veterans of the “peace camp” distinctly uncomfortable.

      Reply to Comment
    2. richard Allen

      Ben Israel, in response to your third point, I’m sure you are aware of the political overtones that the word “settling” have taken on at this point, i.e. displacement of a people, creation of a new reality, and so forth, so I must disagree. This has not been going on for centuries. For centuries, Jews simply MOVED to Jerusalem.

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    3. I’m not sure if Montgomery Gentry copyrighted this line but you should check so that you can’t be sued for stealing it: “I was here first, this is my piece of dirt”.

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    4. rick

      ben, believe me, some christians might disagree on point 2.

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    5. Ben Israel

      The headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church is in Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate is in Constantinople-Istanbul. The Church of England is in England. The Lutheran Church of Sweden is in Sweden.

      Please give examples of churches whoses HQ is in Jerusalem. I am not counting reprsentation which many do have in Jerusalem, but that is not where their leadership sits.

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    6. rick

      ben, you got this point!
      but your statement sounds like j´lem is not so important for christianity anymore. thats why I said some christians might disagree.

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    7. richard Allen

      Ben Israel, Jerusalem may not be the home of Islam, or ever mentioned by name in the Quran, but it is generally thought to be the place that angels brought Muhammed and then from where he ascended to heaven for a few hours, and is thus the third holiest site to them. That is of course ridiculous and clearly never happened, but since you are religious, surely you respect their right to their views, right?

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    8. Ben Israel

      I of course recognize that Islam views Jerusalem as holy. I am not sure they view it as being holy to Judaism. Arafat refused to sign a statement proposed by Barak at Camp David that stated while Israel was handing over Judaism’s holiest place, the Temple Mount, to Palestinian sovereignity, the Arabs acknowledge that it is also holy to the Jews. He said Islam teaches that it is a lie that it is a Jewish holy place and he would never sign anything that says otherwise. That is why the Palestinians will insist on getting control of the Western Wall, which they call “Al-Buraq Square” and they would insist on restricting Jewish access to the location, which was the situation before 1948.

      Since we recognize that Islam views the Temple Mount as a holy place, Israel has allowed the Muslim Waqf to continue to control the place, as was the case before the Six-Day War. Israel allowed the Waqf to carry out unauthorized construction which destroyed many Jewish archaeological artifacts relating to the two Jewish Temples that existed there. Very liberal of us.

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    9. Ben Israel

      Rick-Of course Christianity views Jerusalem as being important. I never said otherwise. That is why it is VITAL for them to support continued Israeli control of ALL of Jerusalem. Should the Palestinians gain control the Churches will all come under pressure from Muslim extremists, as has happened in the other Christian holy cities in the country, including Bethlehem, where the former Christian majority has dwindled to something like 20% of the population, and Nazareth where the Muslim have been pushing to build a big mosque across the street from the Church of the Annunciation which would tower over it.
      Leftist blogger Seth Freedman (who blogs at “Comment is Free” of the British newspaper “The Guardian”) reported a couple of years ago about a visit of his to Nazareth and he said that the the Muslims put a gigantic green banner up opposite the church which said in English and Arabic something to the effect that all those who don’t believe in Islam are going to rot in Hell. This is what will happen in Jerusalem should Israel give up control, because Muslim extremist groups would jockey for position in the holy city, seeing as how the Jews , out of weakness, capitulated to them, giving them control of the city out of their own free will. Division of Jerusalem means the DESTRUCTION of Jerusalem. Period.

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    10. BlightUntoNations

      ……………………………………Here, I agree with Ben. Jerusalem should NOT be divided. Every single speck of it is Occupied Palestinian Land, under international law. The Israelis have no right to any of it.

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    11. richard Allen

      Ben Israel, you are of course aware that the current municipal lines of Jerusalem were drawn fairly recently, and that most of East Jerusalem was never historically Jerusalem, but merely a collection of Arab villages adjacent to historical Jerusalem, yes?

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    12. BlightUntoNations

      ……………………………………….figured I’d move this over here since Ami is erasing my racist comments on his channel.


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    13. John

      In Palestinian Authority, It is by law that all major Palestinian cities including BEthlehem and Ramallah mayors are Christians. The PA with all it’s problems treats it’s 2% Christian minority much better than Israel treats it’s 20% Arab minority. and By the way Bethlehem is 40% Christians and according to polls 78% of Christian Palestinians blame Israel for leaving the Holy Land. But I guess you don’t care about these polls and I wonder if you even know that Christian Palestinians cannot get permits to visit churches in Jerusalem. So much for the state that claims freedom of religion??? Did Christians do terror attacks to be prevented? Why don’t you see the real problem, that it is about Israel belief presented by you on exclusivity over Jerusalem.

      You also present Israel as the guardian of Christian and Muslim sites which is misleading. how many mosques did Israel turn into bars, coffee shops after 48? How many Christian sites are ignored in excavation because they have no relevance to Jewish history.

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    14. BlightUntoNations

      ……………………………………….Hi Mairav. Are you determined to go Ami one better by re-writing my posts? And you wonder why Israelis have the international reputation they do?

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    15. Mairav Zonszein

      BlightUntoNations, your comments are not insightful or educational or founded. They are simply more of the same fundamental and aggressive rhetoric that I often criticize on these pages.
      If you take your comments and replace “Israelis” with “Palestinians” you will sound just like the extremists here in Israel.

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    16. BlightUntoNations

      ……………………………..I’m sorry Mairav because I support much of what you’re doing, but we both know that my statement above concerning Jerusalem–far from being “unfounded” is quite correct and is actually second nature to pretty much everyone apart from the Israelis who can’t get it through their heads that they are not God’s arbiters of international law. If you want to point to something else you feel is unfounded, I’d be happy to hear. Re-writing my posts because you happen not to agree with them doesn’t inspire confidence in terms of your dedication to rational debate. I agree with 90% of your position on these issues but I don’t see Israel reforming itself and every meaningful index shows your country on a committed path in the opposite direction, toward ever more outrageous crimes and race-inspired human rights abuses. There’s no reason this should be tolerated. As a Jew, I find your country a profound threat to peace and a leading source of growing hostility to Jews. I am far from alone among Jews in this assessment.

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    17. Sinjim

      So, in a post that decries the various sides denying the importance of Jerusalem to the other, the very first comment denies the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims and Christians.

      Here’s the truth, Ben Israel: this is not about all Muslims or all Christians. This is about Palestinian Muslims and Christians. For Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Jerusalem is the everyday center of their religion. Their religious headquarters are indeed in Jerusalem. Denying that is only possible if you ignore the fundamental facts.

      As for whether this is a religious conflict or not, I think the forefront of the Palestinian movement is the weekly nonviolent demonstrations taking place in many towns protesting the theft of private land answers that question quite well.

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    18. BlightUntoNations

      …………………………….I consider the religious blatherings of Arab, Jew and Christian to be beside the point here. Jerusalem should go to the Palestinians because Israel is a perfectly viable state without it and Palestine can not exist as a viable without it. Then there’s the little detail of international law, which guarantees Jerusalem to the Palestinians. If Palestinian preoccupation with Jerusalem were purely on religious grounds, I wouldn’t grant it any more credence than I would the Israeli fixation on their dumb Wailing Wall. Once you allow religious crazies to say “hey–that’s mine. It says so in the lunatic book I read every day” then what is next On the basis of that, I can go take over the golf course down the road. There will be no end to it.

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    19. Blightuntonations: According to the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, Jerusalem was to remain a corpus separatum, neither part of the Arab state nor part of the Jewish state. I always understood this odd arrangement as the result of a Christian desire to retain control of the holy cities of Christendom, especially Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Like the Jerusalem municipality since June 1967, the corpus separatum was much larger than the actual municipality that had hitherto existed.) After 1949, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan annexed East Jerusalem, Israel annexed West Jerusalem. To say that Israel can’t exist without Jerusalem ignores the strong sentiments of the Jews who feel they must have Jerusalem or else the Land of Israel is missing its “heart.” Similarly, a Palestinian state without Al Quds is unthinkable if that state is to be a place where Palestinians can live in accordance with their full national heritage and sense of historical calling. The solution does not need to be “partition.” It could be a creative sharing of sovereignty over some areas and control of other areas, and ultimately a cooperative arrangement that does justice to both national religious sensitivities, to a point, and is based on mutual agreements. There are no absolutes here. But good will and mutual respect are required. I am optimistic that Palestinians and Israelis can work this out.

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    20. islamicintolerance

      “West Jerusalem represented the 84,13 percent of “Mandate Jerusalem”. Between 1948 and 1967, only 11,48 percent remained in Arab hands, since the remaining 4.39 percent was a buffer zone between the two sectors.
      In the already conquered West Jerusalem the Jews properties did not exceed 30 percent of the total […] Israel justified its conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967 with the fact that between 1948 and 1967 Jews were not allowed to access to the Wailing Wall.
      Israel attributes this ban to Muslim intolerance. Actually this refusal of access, which lasted twenty years, didn’t have any Muslim motivation, as Jews had been given free access to Jerusalem in the previous twelve centuries of Muslim rule of the city, while the same access was forbidden under Christian domination (Byzantines and Crusades as well).
      The issue of the Wailing Wall fell among the consequences of 48’s War. During it Jewish forces occupied 5 mixed cities, 9 fully Arab cities and 500 enterely Arab villages. Afterward Israel razed to the ground 400 of these 500 villages and distributed that land […]. On the other hand, the ethnic cleansing has deprived of their home 750,000 Pals, Christians and Muslims.
      And while between 1948 and 1967 Jews didn’t have access to the Wailing Wall, for those Palestinians refugees and their descendants, now amounting to several millions of human beings, there was and still remains the denial of access to their lands and their homes in Israel”

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    21. sigh

      don’t get confused with Prophet musa from musa as-samiri … that’s two different people… prophet musa practice the religion that is islam (but then it wasn’t called as Islam, because islam is the last name used to describe the religion of the Muslims.) musa as-samiri is the one who brings out the religion practiced by Israeli now…

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