Jerusalem should be at the center of peace efforts

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The first decade of the twenty-first century has been a disastrous one for Palestinians. Negotiations efforts were dealt a dramatic blow, historic leaders and potential leaders were killed, assassinated or imprisoned and, worst of all, the scourge of internal strife returned to Palestinians in the form of the destructive Hamas-Fateh division.

If the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a relatively non-violent first Palestinian uprising and a breakthrough mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel, the first ten years of the third millennium were violent and destructive. The decades-long hard work and sacrifice of Palestinians, Israelis and international supporters of peace evaporated almost overnight.

A year before the first intifada broke out, on November 15, 1988, PLO delegates at the nineteenth session of the Palestine National Council supported Yasser Arafat’s declaration of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to live alongside Israel. Five years later Arafat shook hands with the hard-line Israeli prime minister, Yitzhaq Rabin, in a gesture that many thought was the beginning of a serious peace process.

Instead, however, US President Bill Clinton, who observed that handshake, spent the last days of his two-term presidency fruitlessly pushing for an agreement at Camp David. A final effort to reach an agreement in the Red Sea resort of Taba brought the parties closer than they have ever been but again to no avail. Violent confrontations had already erupted by then and since then, talks and negotiations have been replaced by failed attempts to resolve the conflict through violence. Perhaps the biggest failure of the politicians was that they were unable to provide hope to their people and subsequently were unable to stand up to those who tried to take violent shortcuts to resolve the conflict.

The reasons for the breakdown of the Camp David II talks have been talked about ad nauseam during this past decade. But contrary to the oft-repeated Israeli spin, Jerusalem and not the right of return was the reason for the summit’s failure. Indeed, if there is one issue that has permeated and defeated all efforts to achieve peace, it is Jerusalem.

It was because of Jerusalem that then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to al-Aqsa mosque in 2000. The visit was met with angry protests but, again unlike the prevailing Israeli narrative, the intifada did not start because of this visit. The intifada broke out because of the brutality that Israeli security personnel used to quash angry demonstrators. Seven years after the famous White House handshake and 13 years after the eruption of the first intifada, Palestinians were angry at the absence of a clear path toward an end to occupation and an ever-expanding Israeli settlement effort. Then tens of Palestinian demonstrators were gunned down simply because they protested the Sharon visit.

Jerusalem continues to be a stumbling block. As this first decade of the twenty-first century comes to an end, the eastern part of the city has been surrounded by an eight-meter high concrete wall. The number of demolitions of Palestinian homes in the city has increased sharply. Over 4,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites have been denied their birthright to reside in the holy city.

Meanwhile, Israel is attempting to Judaize East Jerusalem, especially in the Sheikh Jarrah area, moving Jews in and non-Jews out. The settlement freeze issue, which has become the major impediment to the return to peace talks, is now stuck on the Israeli refusal to accept its application in occupied East Jerusalem.

The decade has certainly not been positive for Palestinians and with its violence, the absence of negotiations and the special focus on East Jerusalem, many more problems are likely to arise. This is especially unavoidable if the issue of Jerusalem is going to be swept under the carpet.

Ironically, while the issue has been the major obstacle to a breakthrough in this intractable conflict, a number of efforts have and continue to be exerted to find solutions. The latest of these efforts is led by a number of veteran Canadian diplomats and researchers who have correctly zoomed in on the need to resolve the status of the one square kilometer Old City.

Whether their hard work bears any fruit depends on the political will to find non-violent solutions to the conflict. Because whether it is borders, Jerusalem, the right of return, settlements or security arrangements, all parties to the conflict must know that there are no military or violent solutions. Non-violent solutions require empathy and sympathy as well as justice and fairness. If we have learned anything in this past bloody decade in Palestine and Israel, it is that violence only begets violence.

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First published by Bittererlemons.org

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