On 3 March 2007, Chief Islamic Justice Sheikh Taysir al-Tammimi and Archimandrite Atallah Hanna announced the creation of the Muslim-Christian Task Force for the Protection of Holy Sites in Jerusalem. The task force was formed mainly as a result of Israel’s recent decision to erect a permanent bridge from the Mugrabi Gate or Bab Al-Maghrabeh (the Moroccans Gate) to the plaza of the Western Wall–”known to Muslims as al-Buraq Wall. The bridge is the latest excavation in a series of unilateral Israeli archaeological digs around the Haram al-Sharif Compound in the Old City that date back to 1967 when Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Palestinians and Muslims view the excavations as Israel’s attempt to alter the delicate status quo in the Old City, particularly around the Haram al-Sharif compound for political gains and to cement their hold on occupied East Jerusalem. The compound and the Christian holy sites in the Old City are at the heart of the Arab and Muslim struggle for sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The international community, through UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, has also expressed concern over Israel’s archaeological excavations and new constructions “which could alter the outstanding universal value of the cultural heritage of the Old City.” Israel’s creation of facts on the ground in the Old City under the guise of archaeological projects has led to confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis both on the ground and at the negotiating table.
The Haram al-Sharif Compound: A Flash Point
In September 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu opened an ancient tunnel to tourists alongside the foundations of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Palestinians feared the excavation would undermine the third-holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Palestinians have argued that Israel’s excavations around the Haram al-Sharif compound or Noble Sanctuary are a direct threat to the foundation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque thus placing it at risk for collapse. Netanyahu’s tunnel decision, which was supported by then-West Jerusalem mayor and now Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert–”who also supports the Mugrabi Gate bridge–”sparked three days of protests which left 80 Palestinians dead and marked the first time Palestinian security forces and Israeli troops exchanged gunfire. The opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel and the violence that followed brought the rocky peace process to a halt.
In September 2000, shortly before becoming Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by heavily armed Israeli forces, made a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif compound. The visit, which started the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, brought to the surface the highly charged issue of sovereignty over the holy sites in particular and Jerusalem in general. The issue of sovereignty in the Old City and over the Haram al-Sharif, which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, was a deal breaker in the 2000 US-brokered Camp David talks.
The Haram al-Sharif Compound
The compound, which is administered by the WAQF, or Islamic Trust, is a massive area on which the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque and Al-Mussallah Al-Marwani (Solomon’s Stables) sit. Along with the three mosques, the 135 dunum (33.5 acres) compound embraces 43 structures including the Islamic Museum. The compound can be accessed through thirteen gates: Bab al-Silsileh (Chain Gate); Bab al-Salam (Tranquility Gate); Bab al-Matarah (Ablution Gate); Bab al-Qattanin (Merchants of Cotton Gate); Bab al-Hadid (Iron Gate); Bab al-Majlis (Council Gate); Bab al-Atim (Gate of Darkness); Bab al-Huttah (Gate of Remission); Bab al-Asbat (Gate of the Tribes); Bab al-Zahabi (Golden Gate); Bab al-Rahma (Door of Mercy); Bab al-Tauba (Door of Repentance) and Bab al-Magharbeh (Moroccans Gate).
Of the thirteen gates, Bab al-Magharbeh or Mugrabi Gate–”which is closed to Muslims–”is the most sensitive. It is the only gate through which non-Muslims can access the compound. In the past, radical Jewish groups have marched onto the compound through the Mugrabi Gate and provoked Muslim worshippers. It is also the gate that Israeli troops use to storm the compound.
Tensions surrounding the Mugrabi Gate area date back to 1967. One of Israel’s first moves in occupied East Jerusalem after the 1967 War was the forceful eviction of over 6,000 Palestinians from the Mugrabi Quarter of the Old City. Israel destroyed the entire quarter. Today that space is called the Wailing Wall Plaza or Western Wall Plaza.
The Old City
StateThe Old City is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. The walls surrounding the Old City were built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman Al-Qanouni in 1542. Together, the walls are over 19.3 km long, 3.2 km in diameter and are an average 12 meters high. Of the seven gates to the Old City, the most famous is Damascus Gate. Within the Old City there are 25 mosques, 65 churches–”including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher–”and 19 synagogues.
Jerusalem: A Brief History
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted 33-13 with ten abstentions in favor of Resolution 181 to partition Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state with Jerusalem and Bethlehem as an enclave under international auspices. In violation of the UN Partition Plan, the Zionist forces invaded and occupied 84 percent of Jerusalem during the 1948 war. The Jordanian army managed to prevent the occupation of the remaining 11 percent, including the Old City and the adjacent villages. The UN built its headquarters in the remaining 4 percent which was deemed no-man’s land.
After a ceasefire was reached with Jordan in 1949, Israel formally divided the city into Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem.
According to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), some 64,000-80,000 Palestinians were forced out of West Jerusalem and the adjacent villages. In June 1948, Palestinian property, including homes and businesses, were placed under the control of the Israeli so-called Custodian of Absentee Property. In addition, approximately 40 Palestinian villages in and around Jerusalem were depopulated and many were destroyed.
In February 1949, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion unilaterally declared West Jerusalem as an “integral part of Israel” and on 13 December 1949, West Jerusalem was illegally declared the capital of Israel. A week later on 19 December the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 303 restating its intention to place Jerusalem under a permanent international body that would “envisage appropriate guarantees for the protection of the Holy Places within and outside Jerusalem, and confirm the provisions of the Partition Resolution 181 of 1947.”
East Jerusalem: An Occupied City
Since occupying East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has used various means to change its legal status. Despite various attempts to alter the geography and demography of the city, through colonization, a separation Wall and residency restrictions, east Jerusalem is defined under international law as occupied territory.
For almost 40 years, Israel has embarked on two simultaneous projects in East Jerusalem. The first is an aggressive settlement and roads network that would forever link the eastern sector of the city to the western part and to Israel. The second is an attempt to limit Palestinian natural growth by revoking Palestinian residencies, demolition of Palestinian homes, confiscation of Palestinian land and issuing a very limited number of building permits to Palestinians.
Customary international law, as reflected in the United Nations charter (Article 2, paragraph 4), rejects the admissibility of acquisition of territory by force and consequently, Israel’s annexation and authority over East Jerusalem is illegal under international law.
UN Position on East Jerusalem
The United Nations recognizes East Jerusalem as occupied territory (subject to the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and consequently rejects Israeli claims of sovereignty over East Jerusalem and has passed resolutions affirming its position.
In response to Israel’s occupation of foreign territory, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 of 1967 calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
In response to Israel’s expansion of Jerusalem’s borders, UNSCR 252 of 1968 states that the Security Council “Considers that all…actions taken by Israel…which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem are invalid and cannot change that status.”
In response to Israel’s attempt to annex Occupied East Jerusalem, UNSCR 476 of 1980 states that the Security Council “Reconfirms that all…actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which purport to alter the character and status of…Jerusalem have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
U.S. Position on East Jerusalem
Official U.S. policy does not recognize Israel’s attempted annexation of East Jerusalem. Palestinians refer to the U.S. Letter of Assurances to the Palestinians of October 1991–”part of the official record of the Madrid Peace Conference–”which reads:
We do not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries, and we encourage all sides to avoid unilateral acts that would exacerbate local tensions or make negotiations more difficult or preempt their final outcome.
The European Union Position on East Jerusalem
Official European Union policy regards East Jerusalem as Occupied Territory and rejects Israeli claims of sovereignty over East Jerusalem. In a Declaration by the EU Council of Ministers on October 1, 1996, the EU declared that:
East Jerusalem is subject to the principles set out in UN Security Council Resolution 242, notably the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and is therefore not under Israeli sovereignty. The Union asserts that the Fourth Geneva Convention is fully applicable to East Jerusalem, as it is to other territories under occupation.
The Palestinian Position on Jerusalem
According to the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD), the PLO maintains that:
As part of the territory occupied in 1967, Israel has no right to any part of East Jerusalem. It is part of the territory over which the indigenous Palestinian population shall exercise sovereignty upon Israeli withdrawal. Furthermore, in conformity with international law and as stated in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, all of Jerusalem (and not merely East Jerusalem) is the subject of permanent status negotiations.
Palestinians believe Jerusalem should be an open city. Regardless of the resolution of the question of sovereignty, there should be no physical partition that would prevent the free movement of people and access to religious sites. Both sides should guarantee the protection of the holy sites and preserve their dignity.