A disputed capital: Why the status of Jerusalem is so contentious

Thomas Coex, AFP | The status of Jerusalem, home to several of the world's most important holy sites, is the most sensitive issue in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict..

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital in a move that shatters a long-standing international consensus. We take a look at why the status of Jerusalem is such an explosive issue.


The city is revered by three major faiths but mired in political and religious disputes. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim the city's eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state. These rival claims are one of the thorniest issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conflict is focused largely on the Old City, home to Jerusalem's most important holy sites, and in particular on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. The compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is the spot where the biblical Jewish Temples stood thousands of years ago and is considered the holiest site in Judaism. Today, it is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock.

The city is also home to the holiest sites in Christianity, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

Postwar partition

A 1947 United Nations plan prescribed partitioning British-run Palestine into three separate entities: a Jewish state, an Arab state and a separate enclave, or "corpus separatum", consisting of Jerusalem, nearby Bethlehem and holy places in the vicinity to be under UN control. The proposal was accepted by Zionist leaders but rejected by the Arabs.

Shock and anger in the West Bank

Following the departure of the British in 1948, Jews declared an independent state of Israel. Fighting ensued with Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states. By the end of the war, east Jerusalem was in Jordanian hands while the new Jewish state set up its capital in the city’s west.

The two sides were divided by barbed wire and sandbags until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel seized and occupied the eastern zone. It declared the whole city its eternal and united capital and in 1980 annexed east Jerusalem, a move never recognised by the international community.

A capital, but no embassies

Until the annexation, 13 countries maintained their embassies in Jerusalem: Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, The Netherlands, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela. They all relocated to Tel Aviv, where other states had their legations.

The traditional US position on the city has been that Jerusalem's status must be negotiated between the two sides. In 1995, the US Congress passed an act stating that "Jerusalem should be recognised as the capital of the State of Israel and the United States embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999." But ever since then, implementation has been blocked by successive US presidents.

Trump vowed during his election campaign to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognise the disputed city as Israel's capital. He partially fulfilled that pledge on Wednesday, declaring Jerusalem Israel's capital, but only announcing his intent to move the embassy there, which could take years.

America alone

Trump’s declaration carries huge symbolic meaning by essentially imposing a solution for one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that heavily favours the Israelis. Such a move all but hollows out Washington’s traditional claim to be a neutral broker.

Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, has been laying the groundwork for a peace initiative, which the president refers to as “the ultimate deal”. But the Palestinians have said that changing the status of Jerusalem would mean the end of those peace efforts. They have also warned of mass street protests – something that could easily erupt into full-scale violence.

International opposition to the move, including from key American allies, has also grown increasingly strident. In recent days, the Arab League, the European Union, Germany and France have all implored the US president not to take action on Jerusalem, fearing for the region’s already precarious stability. Hours before Trump's address, Pope Francis had joined the chorus of international leaders calling for Jerusalem’s “status quo” to be respected.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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