Losing Jerusalem

From the Palestinian perspective, it would appear, the main problem is not recognition of Israel, the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the violence and the terror or even the problem of the refugees and the right of return. The problem is Jerusalem.

If we examine the headlines in the Palestinian media in recent years, there is hardly any doubt that Jerusalem is the key issue on the agenda. Sometimes there's talk of restrictions on Muslims worshiping at the Al-Aqsa Mosque; sometimes there's talk of the purchase of more Arab houses by associations of religious settlers. And at the end of last week there were more reports of Muslim protests against the work at the Mugrabi Bridge, and violent demonstrations at the Qalandiya checkpoint in northern Jerusalem as well as at the crossing point to Bethlehem in the south.

Newspaper photos showed agile young men climbing the ("racist," in the Palestinian version) separation wall and flying a Palestinian flag on it.

From the Palestinian perspective, it would appear, the main problem is not recognition of Israel, the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the violence and the terror or even the problem of the refugees and the right of return. The problem is Jerusalem. Just as the State of Israel would not be able to exist if the right of the 1948 refugees to return were to be recognized, it can be said that a Palestinian state could not exist without East Jerusalem as its capital.

It is in this context that the protest to the Israeli work at the Mugrabi Gate - both by Muslims in general and the Palestinians in particular - must be viewed. It is true that this work does not involve the Al-Aqsa compound itself, that the Israeli plans do not endanger anything sacred to Islam and that these demonstrations exploit the sensitivity surrounding religious issues to launch another attack on the Israeli government. This was the case in the Western Wall tunnel affair in 1996 and when Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in September 2000, and this was the case in a long series of other incidents in which Israel disrupted the status quo in Jerusalem.

Every action that Israeli spokesmen define as a measure of strengthening the Israeli hold in the capital of Israel is defined in Palestinian and Arab terms as a continuation of the efforts to Judaize Jerusalem.

The Palestinians have reason to be sensitive about Jerusalem, because they are losing it. Work toward the completion of the separation fences and the walls around East Jerusalem is nearly finished. The reason for the separation is security. And while Israel is claiming that this is not a political border, the crossing arrangements at the walls are looking more and more like border crossing points between countries. At Betunia and Qalandiya to the north, at Hizma and the Mount of Olives in the east, and at Rachel's Tomb in the south, border control installations have transformed primitive roadblocks into modern terminals.

The Palestinian protests on the Jerusalem issue have not stopped, but from Israel's perspective they have become tolerable. It is possible, with great caution, to say that there are signs of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation on Jerusalem. In the peace agreement between the two countries, Israel promised to give Jordan priority in guarding the city's Islamic holy sites, and this agreement has been kept. The governments of Israel and Jordan are careful not to give positions of power to the Palestinian Authority in the control apparatus at Al-Aqsa, and are jointly working to undermine the status of the head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, who is trying to become the patron of Al-Aqsa.

Can Israel's reinforced grip on East Jerusalem advance the peace process? The answer is no. Without East Jerusalem, a Palestinian state will not arise and the waning dream of "two states for two peoples" will come to an end.