Plenary session (IV) of the International Conference on the question of Jerusalem - “Preserving the cultural and religious character of Jerusalem”
PLENARY IV: WAYS FORWARD TO PRESERVE THE CHARACTER OF THE SACRED CITY
AMMAR HIJAZI, Assistant Foreign Minister for Multilateral Affairs, State of Palestine, stated that Jerusalem was the heart and soul of Palestine, as well as a living testament to darkest and brightest hours of humanity. Wars and peace had been waged in its name. Legally, Jerusalem was a corpus separatum as per General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947). Thus, the international community did not recognize Jerusalem as a unified city under Israeli rule. The international consensus on this matter was reaffirmed on several occasions and the United Nations adopted numerous resolutions to preserve the special status of Jerusalem. Israel did not respect GA Resolution 181 (1947) since its adoption and since 1967, Israel had carried out a systematic assault on the demographic composition of the City and took legal steps to alter it. In 1980 it annexed East Jerusalem. The Security Council had censored Israel, considering the annexation null and void. Israel rejected all customary law, built illegal settlements and encouraged transfer of its citizens, redefined the borders of the City, and adopted a series of measures to condemn Palestinians in Jerusalem to a life of poverty.
Palestinians had a multi-layered strategy to ensure self-determination, to protect the City from Israeli violations and to empower Palestinians to pursue all legal channels to ensure accountability for all violations. Work with international community was carried out to ensure that Palestinians continued to receive support for their life in the City. The UN General Assembly had adopted hundreds of resolutions recognizing the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The State of Palestine engaged with all United Nations bodies, Special Procedures and the Human Rights Council to defend the rights and to maintain Item 7 on the Council’s agenda. The Trump administration had used incredible pressure to abolish Item 7 but they failed. As for embassies, Palestine was building a solid political and legal foundation to ensure that the status of Jerusalem and its standing was well preserved. Countries that said they would move their embassies to Jerusalem had not done so, due to legal ramifications. The State of Palestine had resorted twice to the International Court of Justice, on the matters of settlement construction and the Wall. In 2018, Palestine had submitted an application to the International Court of Justice against United States for violations of Vienna Declaration on Diplomatic Relations. Palestine had also submitted against Israel the first inter-State complaint to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Finally, in 2014 Palestine had accepted the jurisdiction of the Rome Statute and engaged with the International Criminal Court on regular basis.
KHALDUN BSHARA, Director, RIWAQ – Center for Architectural Conservation, speaking about preserving the City through education and community projects, said in 1993 following the Oslo Agreement a new era had emerged, marked by fragmentation, destruction, expropriation and confinement. In 2000 and 2002 the Wall emerged. Despite all of this, Palestinians were always taking care of the City and it was still well preserved, including monuments and stones. Many questions were raised including whether Jerusalem was a city belonging to its citizens. Architects wanted to restore, preserve and renew, as they had to meet the suffering of its citizens. They did not want to turn the City into a museum. They were working to turn spaces, including former places of worship, into liveable areas.
For example, Riwaq provided Palestinian Jerusalemites with trainings on how to restore buildings, and thus how to revalue these buildings, because they had been devalued through the long colonization. This was done through numerous community engagement and cultural activities and storytelling. Systematic outreach was carried out. Restauration was used as a way to decolonize the City. A 50-village regeneration project and numerous others served that purpose. Mr. Bshara showed photos of Jerusalem depicting how Israeli policies were turning parts of the City into a slum. The organization was working on a very small budget but still showed that restauration was affordable and possible.
YONATHAN MIZRAHi, Founder and Director of Emek Shaveh, speaking about concrete suggestions on the protection and preservation of holy and historic sites for the benefits of all cultures and faiths, explained how, over the past 14 years, the Israeli government had been pouring enormous resources into archaeological-tourism projects, which were transforming the physical, cultural and religious identity of the historic City. Entrenching an exclusive narrative was also evident on Palestinian side. A phenomenon that could be called “temple denial” was on the rise, resulting in a negation of a shared Jewish-Muslim heritage on the Holy Esplanade. Israel was using excavation, preservation and development of archaeological sites to physically change the terrain and transform the identity of the City. It was therefore impossible to imagine a solution to the conflict over Jerusalem that did not give expression to the deep cultural and national attachment that both sides harboured towards the City.
He suggested to convening a roundtable committee of Palestinian, Israeli and international experts and stakeholders to articulate principles for the protection and preservation of Jerusalem’s multi-layered historic and sacred sites. The premise for the functioning of the committee would be that in absence of a political agreement, major decisions about development and preservation had to be subject to joint approval by the Israelis, Palestinians and other key stakeholders. Sites had to be managed according to the highest professional standards. Jerusalem was a World Heritage Site and tourism and transportation development in Jerusalem had to be based on the guidelines for safeguarding such Sites. The infrastructure and development had to contribute to a comprehensive solution to the challenges of historic Jerusalem.
GEOFFREY ARONSON, Fellow at the Middle East Institute, speaking about the United States policy and ways forward, started explaining how the current administration perceived issues in Jerusalem. A line had to be drawn on how President Trump’s administration was different from its predecessors. In the Obama administration there was a sense that one had to be on the right side of the history. The Trump administration was not concerned on being on the right side of history, but wanted to make history. This was evident from its actions. The comment of the current United States Ambassador to Israel on the Obama administration’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016) reflected how the people dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue in the Trump administration felt about it. There was even an attempt to change the term “settlements” and use the term “Israeli neighbourhoods and cities” instead, making it easier to normalize their annexation.
In recent weeks prominent United States officials remarked that Israeli annexation of West Bank territory was not to be ruled out. Additionally, there was a rationalization of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by explaining that this was just accepting facts on the ground. Yet, ‘creating facts on the ground’ had been Israel’s colonizing policy for decades, with the hope that eventually diplomacy would have to accept “reality”. And this was now the case with the Trump administration. One question coming to mind when thinking about the future was that of Greater Jerusalem and extending the boundaries of the City with further annexation. At some point, the Trump administration would adopt the Israeli view. Another question concerned the role of the United Nations in the City and the educational curriculum in Palestinian areas of the City. Israel was already limiting this and there was a decrease of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
During the discussion, support to the Palestinian cause and their plight was reaffirmed by participants. Information was shared that a letter had been received from Christian leaders in Jerusalem asking for support against the Israeli settlers’ take-over of houses near Jaffa Gate in the Old City. There was further discussion on the preservation of heritage, including at Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was happening in a very difficult situation, under surveillance of Israeli soldiers. Israel was continuously refusing to allow international organizations to do any kind of monitoring. The issue of Palestine should continuously be kept high in the eyes of the international community; it was suggested to recommend to the UN General Assembly to legislate an International Day for the Preservation of the Cultural and Religious Character of Jerusalem.
Mr. Hijazi said that Palestinians, as victims, were asked to accept everything that their masters told them, starting from recognition of the narrative and denial of what had existed on the land. A victim should not be asked to bow to its master unless one ensured equal pay. Therefore, Palestinians would continue to resist as long as the oppression continued. Palestine was a welcoming country; it had been receiving refugees from Europe before. The Palestinian people were not against Jews, the problem was political. Israeli colleagues had to recognize that rights existed, and one did not have right to excavate on a land that did not belong to oneself, regardless of what kind of attachment one had to it and just because one wanted to impose one’s narrative.
To ensure the preservation of the legal status of Jerusalem, three paths needed to be followed. First, all positive initiatives calling for end of occupation should be supported, whether they were political initiatives or United Nations initiatives. The United Nations had decided to partition Palestine with the support of some States, and today majority of those States still did not recognize Palestine. Thus, what kind of solution were they expecting? Second, accountability had been eluding the Palestinian question so far, and it was time to end that. Perpetrators of international law had to be punished. Third, the political solution had to be entrenched in international law, not in one narrative over another or in a religious cause. A political solution without justice would lead nowhere.
Mr. Bshara, referring to the “economic workshop” in Bahrain, said that 50 billion US$ did not make a difference. If it had been a matter of money, there would not be a single Palestinian living in Jerusalem anymore. However, they were still there, 350,000 of them. Palestinians developed a stubborn way, both conscious and unconscious, to fight oppression in all ways. Arrests of restoration workers were frequent and there was constant surveillance. Roundtables were a good solution, but they had to be held in suitable environment, not while people were being arrested for conducting restoration work. Therefore, the first step was the recognition of rights, meaning Palestinians being recognized as human beings.
Mr. Mizrahi said that the idea of a roundtable came from time to time and it was a way to fight back against unilateral Israeli policies and measures. And in order to keep Jerusalem on the table one had to fight back. On 30 June, the United States ambassador to Israel would attend the opening of a new archaeological tunnel in East Jerusalem – the first time that such a high-level official would attend something that belonged to the matter of heritage. Thus, in essence the United States was already recognizing the annexation.
Mr. Aronson said that the US administration had conveyed that it, too, was interested in creating facts on the ground. Israel did not have a monopoly on such behaviour, although it had been creating steady material changes on the ground. One had to find new mechanisms to assert one’s claims and identify opportunities.