March 14, 2022
Messing around with the delicate relationships that hold together the varying ethnic and religious communities in Jerusalem is playing with dynamite. Even a basic understanding of history should ward off all but the foolhardy and the reckless.
Israeli leaders consistently tempt fate. They did so last April by pushing forward with plans to forcibly dispossess Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. This was the spark that set off conflict, leading to the 11-day war on Gaza, just as it did in 2014. Perhaps most disastrously, the deliberately provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to Al-Haram Al-Sharif in September 2000 led directly to the Second Intifada. Extremist Jewish groups are routinely defying the ban on Jewish prayer at Al-Haram Al-Sharif, even to the extent of entering the site disguised as Muslims.
Tinkering in and around the Old City is particularly insensitive and irresponsible. The area is replete with sites sacred to the three monotheistic religions and their differing sects. There are literally hundreds of sacred sites. This is why there is a status quo agreement in place to try to manage these competing and overlapping attachments, even though it is increasingly being ignored.
Often in the recent past, the tensions have centered on the Jewish-Muslim fault line and of course the Israeli-Palestinian. Yet, right now, the Israeli authorities are also antagonizing the Christian communities in Jerusalem and farther afield with inflammatory plans to expand a national park first set up in 1970 to include prime Christian sites, particularly on the Mount of Olives.
In the normal world, the establishment or expansion of a national park should not be a big deal. But this is Jerusalem.
This promises to be the biggest crisis in Jewish-Christian relations in the city since 1948. The plans were at one point withdrawn in response to Church protests, but were last month returned to the table. The heads of churches in the Holy Land have written a sharply worded letter to the Israeli minister of the environment “to express our gravest concern and unequivocal objection.”
This is not the first time Jerusalem’s Christian leaders have accused the Israeli authorities of trying to weaken the Christian presence in the city. For example, back in 2018, they were infuriated by Israeli plans to tax church properties. They closed the main Christian site in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in protest. Christian leaders have also had major spats with extremist Jewish settler groups as they try to take over properties in the Christian quarter of the Old City.
The Israeli authorities are set to hand over control of a vital and sensitive area to an extremist settler organization.
What do these new plans entail and how do they fit in with the other projects in and around the Old City, in what is often referred to as the Holy Basin?
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority plans to expand the Jerusalem Walls National Park by about 275 dunams (68 acres). The current area is next to the ramparts of the Old City walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent on the east of the Old City. The newly expanded area will include parts of the Kidron Valley, Mount of Olives and Hinnom Valley. The Mount of Olives played a central and defining role in the life of Jesus Christ. Is there anywhere with more sacred sites in the whole of Christendom? It is, of course, important in other faiths too, with a major Jewish cemetery located there.
Any attempt to extend Israeli control over the area was always going to trigger fears. Moreover, in the past, such areas have been turned over exclusively to the Elad settler organization, with which the national park authority works closely, as seen in nearby Silwan, where Elad is engaged in removing the Palestinian presence. So, the Israeli authorities are set to hand over control of this vital and sensitive area to an extremist settler organization whose aim is to take complete control at the expense of Christian-Muslim interests.
The Jerusalem Local Planning and Construction Committee was going to review these plans in April but will now do so in August. It is unclear how this will proceed, but the Israeli leadership could make an intervention, not least if key powers like Russia and Greece make their views known. Vladimir Putin, for example, sees himself as the protector of Russian Orthodox interests and several of this church’s sites are involved.
But these plans cannot be seen in isolation. The expansion of the national park seeks to ensure greater control to the east of the Old City, while the plans to remove Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah to the north and Silwan to the south and replace them with Israeli Jewish settlers would complete the encirclement of this area. There is also another national park expansion on the slopes of Mount Scopus to be imposed on privately owned Palestinian land. All this is designed to fragment both the Christian and the Palestinian presence in this most delicate area. There are also plans to demolish 31 Palestinian businesses in nearby Wadi Al-Joz.
At a broader level, Israel has already used a whole host of mechanisms to limit the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, encircling the entire occupied eastern part with settlements, the wall and checkpoints. Most Palestinians in Bethlehem, for example, cannot even make the short journey north to Jerusalem.
A vibrant and lively Christian community in Jerusalem is essential to the preservation of the character of this city. No one identity group should try to dominate the others. This was one of the reasons the UN General Assembly in 1947 envisaged Jerusalem being held under international trusteeship.
Responsible actors, including those states with majority Christian populations with a stake in this issue, will make their anger known. Israel should be encouraged to handle the issue responsibly and rein in the ambitions of its extremist settler groups. This was how Israel handled its role in the aftermath of the 1967 war and its leaders would be wise to return to that approach.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view