The Oslo agreement and the Declaration of Principles list the problem of Jerusalem as one of the final status negotiating agenda items between Israelis and Palestinians to be negotiated and agreed on within five years from signing the agreement. That was in 1993. Since then, the issue of Jerusalem has featured prominently as one of the most stubborn and challenging negotiating issues. This is due to the religious and historic importance of the Al Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount, as well as the city’s central position and importance in tourism and economy.
As such, it was no coincidence that the point of departure in relations between Palestinians and Israelis from peaceful negotiations to bloody confrontations was over the issue of the Al Haram Al Sharif. The visit of the Israeli right-wing extremist Ariel Sharon to the Al Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount on September 29, 2000 provoked a unique firestorm of public anger in Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, and among Palestinians in Israel and in the Diaspora. The wave of demonstrations spread to all Arab and Islamic countries in a way not seen for the last 30 years.
Despite the importance of this site for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, the Palestinian political position on Jerusalem and Al Haram Al Sharif is not one of religion or history, but based in politics and law. The entire world has managed to convince the Palestinian people that in modern times the criteria for handling conflicts should be that of international law and international legitimacy. That is why Palestinians believe that since the real basis for solving this problem is United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which considers the Palestinian territories to the east of the borders of 1967 illegally occupied. Because Al Haram Al Sharif and East Jerusalem happen to fall east of the borders of 1967, that particular place and the rest of East Jerusalem must fall under Palestinian legal sovereignty. Any religious or historic site to the east of these legal borders should fall under Palestinian jurisdiction and any religious or historic site that happens to fall on the western side of these borders should fall under Israeli jurisdiction. The basis for this logic is the legal and modern approach to sovereignty, which separates political sovereignty rights from religious rights.
Therefore, if there are Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites that happen to be in Palestinian sovereign territories, according to international law they should naturally fall under Palestinian sovereign control with full religious rights guaranteed. Religious rights should not extend into political and legal sovereignty rights and this logic goes both ways–Islamic and Christian sites that happen to fall west of the 1967 borders will fall under the political sovereignty of Israel, with complete religious rights guaranteed.
The Israeli demand for political and legal sovereignty over specific sites in Jerusalem due to their religious and historical significance are demands that contradict international law. If the international community tolerates this, then one must imagine how the world will look when everyone with religious claims over someone else’s territory demands the extension of their political and legal sovereignty over those areas. The only logic for solving this problem is that which separates religious rights–which should be pursued and respected–from legal, political and sovereign rights based on international law. Anything else will further transform the Middle East political struggle into one of religious difference, which is the recipe for enflaming the dispute rather than easing it, and deepening disagreements that have no solution.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.