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Political scientist explains rising tensions in Jerusalem

The recent UNESCO World Heritage Committee Resolution on Jerusalem’s Old City was the backdrop for Miriam Elman’s Nov. 3 talk, “Jerusalem: Conflict in the Holy City.”

The resolution refers to the Temple Mount only by its Arab name and “basically writes Jews out of their own history,” Elman said.

She noted that UNESCO’s denial of the religious and historical attachment of Jews and Christians to Jerusalem has a long history.

“The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem also denied the connection in the 1920s, seeing it as a way to solidify his political power and resulting in an incitement to violence, riots and the murder of Jews,” said Elman, associate professor of political science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. She is also research director of the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration and co-editor of “Jerusalem: Conflict and Cooperation in a Contested City” (2014).

Although the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque is administered by an Islamic trust, the Israeli government enforces a controversial ban on prayer by non-Muslims to avoid violence, she said. This has resulted in Jews being arrested by Israeli police for praying under their breath when visiting the Temple Mount, Elman said.

To understand the current situation in Jerusalem, Elman said, it’s critical to understand the city’s history. She said that after the 1948 war, Jordan took control of East Jerusalem and ethnically cleansed all Jews from the territories it controlled. In many cases, the Jordanians allowed Palestinians to live in confiscated Jewish homes rent-free, though it did nothing to provide indoor plumbing or services and allowed East Jerusalem residents to live in poverty and squalor, she said.

Since Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Jews have been bringing cases in Israeli courts to reclaim their families’ homes, more frequently in recent years. Palestinians living in these East Jerusalem homes don’t want to leave, said Elman, resulting in increasing tensions.

“But Jerusalem is not a microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Elman said. “What happens there is very unique, different from what happens elsewhere.”

For example, whereas many communities in East Jerusalem are mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into exclusive areas, with very little mingling of populations. There is no Palestinian self-government in East Jerusalem. Israeli law covers the area; there are no military courts and the Israel Defense Forces does not operate there. East Jerusalemite Palestinians are permanent Israeli residents, with the right to vote in municipal elections, receive social benefits and free K-12 education the same as Israelis. They also have a right to citizenship, and although it is still considered “taboo,” Elman said more Palestinians are taking up citizenship than ever before, although in secret.

“But most East Jerusalem Palestinians are in a state of transience and impermanence,” said Elman. “They ignore the local Jerusalem government because they’re waiting for the Israelis to withdraw and there to be a Palestinian state.”

The security barrier, called the “separation wall” by Palestinians, is a chain link fence for most of its length, but around Jerusalem the barrier is a solid wall, she said.

“Although it’s definitely a nuisance for Palestinians, there’s also no doubt that this barrier put an end to mass casualty terror events,” said Elman, noting that during the second intifada between 2000 and 2005 Jerusalemites experienced more terrorism than did residents of any other Israeli town or city.

“But,” she added, “it’s important to remember that it’s a barrier, not a border, and it can be removed.”

Elman noted the hardening of positions on both sides. But self-proclaimed optimist Elman closed by pointing to areas where Israelis and Palestinians do cooperate and have found ways to coexist. “We should all go back to Theodor Herzl’s vision,” said Elman, “of Jerusalem as a great condominium [political territory] of culture and morality.”

The talk was sponsored by the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Melissa Osgood