The ancient city of Jerusalem is central to the religion and the nationalism of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, alike. This makes it the most emotional and volatile of all the issues in dispute between the two parties.
The heart of the dispute over Jerusalem is the Old City. It is there we find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The Wall is part of the structure surrounding the Temple Mount, where Herod’s Temple stood until 70 C.E., when Jerusalem was razed and the Temple destroyed by the Romans. It is where Jews believe the Third Temple will be built after the coming of the Messiah.
The Haram al Sharif, as the Temple Mount is called in Arabic, is also one of the holiest sites in Islam and is the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is where the Prophet Mohammed was brought by God on his night journey. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified and buried.
Beyond the religious significance, the city of Jerusalem is also seen as the national capital of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs. It was the central city in the Kingdom of Judah, and thus the only identifiable capital Jews have had in their history. After the Roman exile in 70 A.D., the Jewish presence in the city was gradually reduced to a small minority, but never gone completely. When the Zionist movement coalesced, Jerusalem went from a symbol of a coming messianic era to a central piece of the new national Jewish identity.
As Palestinian society grew over the centuries leading to the modern era, Jerusalem was the cultural, and often the commercial center of the local society, despite the many wars of conquest it endured. As Palestinian nationalism grew from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, the position of Jerusalem as the national capital of Palestine, already strong due to the religious significance and attraction for pilgrims from around the world, was solidified. Its division in the wake of Israel’s war for independence, with the Old City having been occupied by Transjordan along with the rest of the West Bank set the stage for decades of dispute, especially because for the eighteen years it was under Jordanian rule, Jews were unable to visit their holiest sites.
After Israel took control of East Jerusalem, along with the rest of the West Bank in 1967, most Israelis supported keeping the whole territory. But even among the Israelis who wanted to return the rest of the West Bank to Jordan, the vast majority wanted to keep Jerusalem.
In 1980, Israel passed a law which amounted to the official annexation of East Jerusalem, but this action has never been recognized by any other country, including the United States. The administrative area that is referred to as Jerusalem today includes not only the eastern and western parts of the city itself, but also an approximately 100 mile radius around the Old City, extending well into the West Bank to the east, north and south.
Israel characterizes settlements in Greater Jerusalem as “neighborhoods,” and sees them as constituting a different category from other West Bank settlements. The Palestinians consider all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank to be one unit. Settlements near Jerusalem are, in the Palestinian view, and in the consensus of international opinion, no different than any other settlement on occupied territory.
In fact, the international community does not technically recognize either Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. The 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine stipulated that Jerusalem would be under international jurisdiction, providing for the protection of the people and sites in the contested city. None of the events since then have been recognized by the international community as changing that status.
However, the international community has generally supported the notion of dividing the city and creating two capitals for two states. Other proposals have also discussed the idea of Israel and Palestine sharing the entire city or keeping it internationalized. Israel has generally been amenable to the Islamic Waqf administering the site of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, although in recent years there have been mounting calls in Israel for the exercise of Israeli sovereignty over the holy site. The issue remains extremely volatile.