Jerusalem: Divided City

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Jerusalem: Divided City

The Conflict

In 1947 the United Nations declared that Palestine, then under British mandate, should be split into separate Jewish and Palestinian states, and that Jerusalem—the holy city coveted by both groups—should be placed under international jurisdiction. In the fighting that following, both immediately and in the years to come, Jerusalem became increasingly divided and its disposition increasingly difficult to resolve. As Israel and the Palestinians move toward a potential settlement in 2000, the issue of Jerusalem remains as difficult as it was in 1947.


• Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam all regard Jerusalem as a holy place, central to religious expression.


  • The division of the city following the war and Israel's declaration of statehood has led to the politicization of all aspects of the city.
  • After years of being unwilling to discuss any compromise, Israel, which regards Jerusalem as the capital and the core of Israel, has seemed willing to discuss ways to reach agreement.
  • Israel has not agreed to Palestinian control of East Jerusalem, though they have offered the Palestinians some autonomy within Jerusalem.
  • The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

In June 1999 former mayor Teddy Kollek opened the Museum of the Seam in Jerusalem. The museum is unusual because it is situated on the west side of Route 1, the road that was built over the no-man's land that politically divided Jewish West Jerusalem from Arab East Jerusalem before the Six-Day War in 1967. It remains a symbolic division, since few Jews ever go east of Route 1 and few Palestinians go west, other than to work.

The museum itself is symbolically important, too. It is located in what had been the home of a member of the Palestinian elite before the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. From 1948 until the 1967 war it was a guard post for the Israeli Defense Force. For most of the period between 1967 and 1999 it had been a museum honoring the Israeli victory that unified the city of Jerusalem and brought Israel the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the mid-1990s, the German foundation that had largely funded the museum told its administrators that it was time to change. After a couple years of renovation, it reopened in its new form—to "raise awareness and provoke thought, encouraging dialogue and finding ways of coping with a multi-cultural society." In an hour's guided tour, visitors are shown powerful audio and visual vignettes not just about divided Jerusalem, but Sarajevo, Berlin, and Johannesberg as well. The guide and the exhibits encourage visitors to think about how they view the others, in this case how Jews see Palestinians and Palestinians see Jews. They are urged to reconsider their stereotypes and their hostilities so that the two communities can share this ancient and spectacular city, which visitors see at the end of the tour from the roof of the new museum.

Yet despite the museum's attempts to encourage introspection and dialogue, in 2000, the Palestinians set a September 13 deadline: if no final agreement had been reached with Israel on the status of Jerusalem and a number of other issues, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Until May and June 2000, Israel had never been willing to talk about Jerusalem in discussions regarding political settlements. For Israelis, it was forever to be the capital of Israel, solely under their jurisdiction. In 2000, the fact that new Prime Minister Barak was willing to negotiate over Jerusalem was a sign of major progress, but the fact that the Israelis were still unwilling to cede East Jerusalem was and remains a major obstacle to reaching an agreement.

Historical Background

Jerusalem is truly one of the world's most ancient cities. It is also one of the holiest sites in the world's three great monotheistic traditionsCJudaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The first references to what the Jews call Yerushalayim and the Arabs Al-Quds date from Egyptian tablets from about 1400 b. c. About four hundred years later, King David captured the heavily fortified city, making it the Jewish capital for the first time. Under David and his son Solomon, the Jews expanded their state and built the first temple in Jerusalem. The temple was then destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 b. c. and sent the Jews into exile. A half-century later, the Persians captured Jerusalem and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild the temple. It stood until the Roman emperor Vespasian destroyed it during a Jewish rebellion from 132 to 135 a. d. Jews were again banished from the city. Though it remained important to them theologically, it was not to be a major center of Jewish population for almost 2000 years.

Ancient Jerusalem was, of course, also the site of Jesus's crucifixion and, according the Christian theology, the city from which he was resurrected. Early on, therefore, Jerusalem also became a holy city for Christians with, for instance, the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre early in the fourth century.

To Muslims, Jerusalem is also holy because it is from there that the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. Once Muslims took control of the city in the seventh century, they began building religious shrines of their own. Most notably, they erected the Al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) with the Dome of the Rock sitting directly on top of the ruins of the two Jewish temples.

Jerusalem was the focal point of the Crusades. It was captured in 1099 during the First Crusade, in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly Jews and Muslims. Saladin (Salah ad-Din) recaptured the city in 1187. In the thirteenth century, the walls were torn down to make it harder for the Crusaders to defend were they to capture it again.

Jerusalem Under the Ottomans

From Saladin's time until 1917, Jerusalem was ruled by Muslims, most notably by the Ottomans (Turks), who captured the city in 1536. They rebuilt and fortified the city walls, as they are today. They also allowed Christians and Jews to live in the city and even excavated much of the Western Wall of the second temple to provide Jews with a place to pray. Under their rule as well, the Via Dolorosa, supposedly the site of Jesus' walk carrying the cross, became a site of Christian devotion.

Under the Ottomans, the political and economic role of Jerusalem receded. It never was a major administrative center under Muslim rule, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century it only had about ten thousand inhabitants (roughly the same number as at the time of the Ottoman conquest). Its population was contained within the walls of what is today called the Old City. The population began to grow in the nineteenth century as a few Jewish pilgrims settled there and began building neighborhoods outside of the walls. Meanwhile, natural population growth led to the expansion of Arab villages in the outskirts of the city as well. By 1922 the population had grown to twenty-two thousand, with a very slight Jewish majority.

The Heart of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jerusalem became a political hotspot again in the twentieth century. Theodor Herzl and others founded modern Zionism in the late 1800s; soon, Jews began arriving in Palestine in ever-larger numbers, though, at first, relatively few of them settled in Jerusalem. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire had long been weakening, and finally disintegrated during World War I. The United Kingdom then officially took over Palestine as a mandate from the League of Nations (the precursor to today's United Nations). Historians rarely assess the British Mandate kindly. Even before it began, the United Kingdom sent mixed messages. The 1917 Balfour Declaration suggested that the British government was open to the creation of an Israeli state in what was then the Ottoman province of Palestine. At the same time, the British and French made promises for post-war autonomy to Arab leaders to get them to support the Allied war effort.

Post-war British actions frustrated both sides. The British limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, even after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and began his campaign against the Jews that culminated in what it now known as the Holocaust. The British also did little to defuse tensions between the growing Jewish and Palestinian populations, both of which wanted to control Jerusalem.

During the U.N. mandate years (1917-48), tensions between the Jews and Palestinians (as well as tensions between both of the groups and the British) mounted. There were periodic clashes between Jews and Palestinians throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, a 1929 dispute over access to the Western Wall led to a riot in which almost seventy people were killed. Sporadic rebellions against partition by Palestinians in the late 1930s claimed close to four thousand lives.

The conflict eased during World War II. Most Jews put their desire for statehood on hold and joined in the effort to defeat the Nazis, especially once extent of the Holocaust became clear. As the war ended, however, the demand for a Jewish state grew, and some Zionists engaged in terrorism, including the assassination of the United Nations representative in Jerusalem. The conflict over Israel's statehood was more between the Jews and the British than between the Jews and the Palestinians.

Resolution 181

In 1947 the British declared their intention to abandon their mandate over Palestine; the mandate had been transferred to the United Nations following the collapse of the League of Nations. In November 1947, the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine proposed Resolution 181, whereby the country be split into Jewish and Palestinians states with the city of Jerusalem placed under international jurisdiction.

Palestinians, who made up about two thirds of the population and owned most of the land, opposed the provisions of Resolution 181, and widespread fighting soon broke out. The fighters included what was by then a well-armed and trained Jewish army, plus troops from the neighboring Arab states. As would prove to be the case in later wars, the discipline, equipment, and training of the Israelis won out over the numerical advantage held by the Arabs.

Fighting raged through much of Palestine, yet Jerusalem remained the focus. Israel won just about all the land proposed for it in Resolution 181, as well as additional land. The war included ferocious fighting in and around Jerusalem that left Israel in control of the western part of the city and Jordan in control of the old city, eastern neighborhoods (about eleven percent of the total land), and the West Bank as a whole. On December 13, 1949, Israel declared Jerusalem to be its capital; an action viewed as a violation of international agreements by most international lawyers—and most Palestinians. Subsequently, the United States and many other countries have refused to build embassies in Jerusalem; ironically, if the United States does build an embassy in Jerusalem, it will be located on land in the no-man's area set up at the end of the fighting nearby the Museum of the Seam.

The Catastrophe and Insecurity

Palestinians typically refer to their defeat as alnakhba, the catastrophe. Thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands fled (Palestinians claim they were forced to flee) their homes, launching a flood of refugees that remained at more than four million in mid-2000. Israelis looked at their new country and realized just how insecure they were: on a clear day, you can look from the campus of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and see Jordan; at its narrowest point, Israel was only twenty-five kilometers (fourteen miles) wide. Disturbingly, all of Israel's Arab neighbors were pledged to its destruction.

Israel and the Arabs fought another war in 1956, largely over the Suez Canal, but it had little direct effect on Jerusalem. The biggest change and the most serious obstacle to peace today came with the Six-Day War of 1967, in which the Israelis won a decisive victory and occupied all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, however, Israel formally annexed all of Jerusalem and even extended its traditional borders to include areas it considered strategically important. Despite the Security Council's passage of Resolution 242 and other documents that called on Israel to withdraw from all territory it occupied in 1967, Israel has consistently argued that Jerusalem is different and that the unified city is and will remain the capital of the Jewish state regardless of whatever agreements are reached on the West Bank or Gaza.

The Yom Kippur/October war of 1974 did little to affect the status of Jerusalem. The next major outbreak of tension influencing Jerusalem was the intifada, which began in Gaza in December 1987. The intifada (literally, a throwing off) was a mostly spontaneous uprising by young Palestinians who were, at most, loosely controlled by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). The protesters often threw stones at Israeli police officers and other symbols of its authority. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed and thousands were arrested in a repressive reaction by Israel that, at least initially, showed shocking brutality.

Since the intifada died down, there have been fewer violent protests in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine/Israel. However, there have been quite a few terrorist actions, though not by the traditional terrorist groups. On the Palestinian side, Hamas has carried out a number of attacks, including some deadly ones in Jerusalem's streets and open-air markets. Israeli extremists have also carried out attacks, including one on the al-Aqsa Mosque and another in which an ultra-orthodox Jewish doctor killed twenty-nine and wounded sixty-seven Palestinians who were praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, just a few miles from Jerusalem.

Divided Communities

There are now serious divisions within the Jewish and Palestinian communities. Among the Jews, conservative ultra-orthodox and Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) are resisting attempts to reach peace with the Palestinians. One ultra-orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, assassinated the Israeli prime minister and leading peace advocate Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The Palestinians are divided, too, most notably between moderates in the PLO and militants opposed to reconciliation with Israel, such as Hamas.

In the third of a century since it occupied the entire city, Israel has solidified its political hold on East Jerusalem. Machine-gun-toting soldiers routinely patrol the Old City, including the entrance to the Temple Mount. The city has unified telephone, electrical, sewer, and other infrastructural systems. Israeli authorities try to tell Palestinians the organizations that can and cannot operate legally in the city, actions that most frequently have led it to limit the activities of Orient House, the unofficial office of the PLO in Jerusalem. An elaborate—and to Palestinians oppressive—system of rules, check points, and identity cards controls the number of Palestinians who can legally enter or live in the city. Whenever Israel deems it appropriate, it imposes closures, making it all but impossible for Palestinians who do have legal authorization to live in Jerusalem to work there.

For Palestinians, the most disturbing development since 1967 has been the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied lands. Some 160,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in settlements built since the Six-Day War. Some of these are small, primitive outposts that will be relatively easy to dismantle. However, in East Jerusalem there are modern suburbs that are built on all the hills surrounding the city. The most recent and controversial is the one being built in 2000 at Har Homa/Jabel Abu Ghneim, about half way between downtown Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The current wave of construction will bring about thirty thousand Jews to Har Homa; eventually, the Israelis plan on a population of sixty thousand.

The difference between living standards in West and East Jerusalem is striking. Israeli authorities have done little to improve the quality of life among Palestinians—though they are better off than many others in non-oil-producing Arab states. For instance, Israeli authorities have built roughly forty thousand public housing units on land taken in 1967 but virtually none in East Jerusalem. Only 1.6 percent of Jewish Jerusalemites live in overcrowded conditions (defined as more than three people per room) but almost a quarter of Palestinians do. Classes in Jewish elementary and secondary schools average about twenty-five students; in Palestinian classrooms the figure is almost thirty. Between 1988 and 1998, over a thousand classrooms were built for Jewish students and less than three hundred for Palestinians.

The Peace Process

Until late 1992, it was illegal for Israelis to meet with members of the PLO. The United States, as well as Israel, refused to negotiate with the organization, even though it had been recognized by the United Nations as a legitimate voice of the Palestinian people and had largely renounced violence. However, that does not mean that there was no peace-process taking place. Israelis and Palestinians (supposedly non-PLO) had opened negotiations in Madrid, Spain, in 1991. However, these talks accomplished little.

Real progress came in an unexpected way, beginning in Jerusalem. Just inside East Jerusalem is the American Colony hotel. For years its bars, restaurant, lobby, and open-air courtyard have been a place where Palestinians, Jews, and foreigners gather together. As early as the late 1980s, informal groups of liberal-minded Arabs and Jews had been meeting at the American Colony and elsewhere. Organizations like Interns for Peace and Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salaam (Oasis of Peace) found ways to bring people from the two communities together to begin finding common ground.

In early 1993, a then obscure Norwegian social scientist, Torje Rod Larsen, told people on both sides that his office and his government would be willing to facilitate talks. Thus began a series of secret sessions in and around Oslo, Norway. They began as informal talks between academics who had no official standing, though the leaders of both governments knew that these and other talks were taking place. Once it became clear that the professors were making progress, both the Israeli government and PLO sent top-level negotiators. Until the last moment, next to no one in the world knew the talks were occurring, including the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton. Thus, virtually everyone was shocked when the Declaration of Principles was announced and formally signed at the White House on September 13, 1993.

The Oslo Accords

The Oslo Accords did not address the question of Jerusalem. In fact, the two sides understood that they could not reach an agreement on it at the time, and it was deferred until the so-called "final status" talks, which were due to be completed by mid-1999 but were still under way as of mid-2000. It did, however, bring formal recognition of Israel by the PLO and vice versa and started a gradual process transferring land and political control in Gaza and West Bank to the Palestinians. Since then, Oslo II (1995) laid out more land and functions to be transferred to the Palestinians. The memorandum also called for the resumption of the final status talks.

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 slowed the peace process dramatically. Following a few months of political uncertainty, hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel. Netanyahu resisted all approaches from the PLO, the United States, and others. Even so, the two sides reached an agreement on the partial withdrawal from Hebron in 1997. Under pressure from the U.S. government in Washington, DC, Israelis (and the Palestinians) signed the Wye River memorandum in October 1998, which produced a further thirteen percent re-deployment of Israeli troops, the releases of Palestinian prisoners, and changes to the PLO Charter's rhetoric on Israel.

The momentum regarding a settlement returned when Netanyahu was defeated at the polls in 1999 and replaced by retired General Ehud Barak. Barak was committed not just to peace with the Palestinians but with Syria and Lebanon as well. In June 2000, Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Recent History and the Future

In July 2000, President Clinton brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for what turned out to be a three week summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland where an earlier agreement between Israel and Egypt had been formed. For the first time, Jerusalem was on the agenda. Ultimately, the talks failed in large part because the two sides could not agree on a compromise on the city's status. The Palestinians insisted that East Jerusalem had to be under their control and become the capital of their state as well. Israel was willing only to give Palestinians administrative control of part of the city and would only allow the capital to be in Abu Dis or one of the other Palestinian villages that have essentially become suburbs of Jerusalem. The two sides also could not agree on the status of what the Israelis see as legitimate suburban communities and the Palestinians see as illegal settlements inside the post-1967 borders of Jerusalem.

The PLO set September 13, 2000, as a deadline for reaching an agreement on final status talks, including not just Jerusalem but water rights, the status of refugees, and more. If an agreement is not reached, Chairman Arafat has threatened to uni-laterally declare a Palestinian state. Not surprisingly, many observers have viewed Camp David as a failure. However, most participants see it as a step in the right direction, since Jerusalem and refugees both made it onto the agenda for the first time. There are rumors of new and creative ideas of sharing sovereignty for the city, and the prospects for some sort of settlement on Jerusalem are brighter than ever.


Abu-Nimer, Mohammad. Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Israel. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1999.

Gerner, Deborah, One Land/Two Peoples: The Conflict over Palestine. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1994.

Hiro, Dilip. Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians. New York: Oliver Branch Press, 1999.

Horovitz, David. A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel. New York: Knopf, 2000.

PASSIA (Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Relations) PASSIA Diary. (1 September 2000).

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.



1400s b. c. King David and his son Solomon build the first Temple in Jerusalem (according to Judaism).

30-33 a. d. According to Christianity, Jesus Christ is crucified and resurrected.

600s The Muslims build the Al Aqsa mosque with the Dome of the Rock on top of the ruins of two Jewish temples that had been demolished centuries earlier.

1187-1917 Jerusalem is ruled by Muslims, primarily Ottomans (from Turkey), who provide considerable religious freedom for the local Christians and Jews.

1896 Theodore Herzl writes The Jewish State. Modern Zionism begins and Jews begin immigrating to Palestine (though in relatively small numbers).

1917 The Balfour Declaration suggests that the U.K. agrees to create an Israeli state in Palestine; at the same time, the British make promises to Arab leaders to establish a Palestinian state.

1917-48 Palestine is ruled by the United Kingdom in a mandate granted by the League of Nations, which later becomes the United Nations.

1947 The British announce that they would end their mandate, and the United Nations votes to divide Palestine into two separate states—Israel and Palestine—with Jerusalem being placed under international jurisdiction (Resolution 181). Fighting breaks out.

1949 Israel declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel in violation of international agreements.

1967 Israel occupies all of Jerusalem following the Six-Day War. Israel begins to establish settlements on occupied land.

1987 The intifada, an uprising of Palestinian youth, is met with brutal repression by Israeli police.

1993 Talks begin in Norway, leading to a Declaration of Principles to solve the Palestinian/Israeli problem, called the Oslo Accords.

1995 Oslo II establishes agreements regarding more land and activities.

1999 The Wye River memorandum further extends the agreement.

2000 Israel withdraws from Israeli-occupied Lebanon. Discussions at Camp David in Maryland in the United States are unsuccessful, but, for the first time, Jerusalem is on the agenda. The Palestinians set September 13, 2000, as a deadline for declaration of a Palestinian state, regardless of whether agreement has been reached.

Major Religious Sites of World Religions

Baha'i Faith

  • Haifa, Israel
  • Akka (Acre), Israel


  • Lopburi, Nepal
  • Bodh Gaya, India
  • Sarnath, India


  • Bethlehem, Israel
  • Nazareth, Israel
  • Jerusalem, Israel
  • Vatican City, Italy (Catholicism)


  • River Ganges, India
  • Gaya, India
  • Varanasi (Beneres), India



• Palitana, Gujerat, India


• Jerusalem, Israel


• Amritsar, Punjab, India

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Jerusalem: Divided City

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