Jerusalem has returned to the centre of Arab attention and it seems as though the Palestinian cause has awakened from a deep sleep. Demonstrations swarm the streets, declarations of condemnation resound, and Arab ruling elites and everyone else who has a stance to voice against the US is riding the crest. It is no wonder that Jerusalem occupies such a sacred place in the hearts of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. The Holy City is where Christ was crucified and where the Church of the Resurrection stands, and it is the place to where the Prophet Mohamed landed during his midnight journey on the night of the Israa and Meiraj.
Nevertheless, the very return of the subject begs the question as to the reasons for its absence for so many years. Did it take a decision by the US president to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to realise that the Holy City was occupied? Could it be that the anger is directed not only at Israel and the US, but also at ourselves who seem to have been jolted awake by the sudden realisation that so much has changed both in the Arab region as a whole, which has experienced so many bloodbaths in the past few years, and in the Palestinian situation, which is so sharply divided? During the influential conference it organised on Jerusalem, Al-Azhar announced that it would introduce the subject of Jerusalem into its curriculum to ensure that future generations are acquainted with the Palestinian question and the Holy City at its heart.
It has been realised, hopefully not too late, that the Arab world had been preoccupied by numerous other concerns during recent years. Yet, these other concerns have not been resolved. Is it possible to revive “the cause” while the reasons for its oblivion still persist?
Arab treatment of the subject remains the same. There is a legal school whose lawyers, legal scholars and other affiliates studied the subject of foreign occupation in international law and UN resolutions and concluded that the US and Israeli decisions regarding Jerusalem are invalid. A decision founded upon invalid premises is null and void and cannot stand. There is a school of diplomacy that brought to bear its familiarity with all the relevant international resolutions along with the aforementioned arguments and conclusions in a battle that took place in the Security Council. In spite of the US veto, the 14 to one majority handed a political victory to the Egyptian-sponsored resolution, which was then crowned by the 128 votes it obtained in the General Assembly.
Once that important resolution was added to the previous resolutions on the matter, the majority of UN members, having performed their duty towards “the cause”, turned their attention elsewhere. Then, after several days of diplomatic spars over “the cause”, the world gathered together in the Security Council to unanimously pass a resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea. Finally, there is a political school that was keen to register its rejection of Washington’s decision. It was voiced by the governments of Arab and Islamic states, 86 of which attended the recent Al-Azhar conference in order to express their opposition, not just to the US decision to move its embassy or to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but to Israel itself.
Naturally there is a big difference between the “position” that governments declare in favour or against a subject and the policy that determines the steps governments will take in order to alter a situation they do not like and believe is crucial to their vital interests. With the subject at hand, this policy cannot be formulated without taking a number of considerations into account. Firstly, there are Arab countries which are in a state of peace with Israel and other countries that have peaceful dealings with it from time to time. With regard to the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, their relationship with Israel remains governed by the Oslo Accords.
Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have withdrawn from these accords in spite of their bitter grievances against the other side for violating their provisions. Secondly, after all the above-mentioned legal, diplomatic and political declarations, the Western nations that supported the Arab stance, as well as the US, which didn’t, maintain close relations with Arab and Islamic countries in numerous areas of concern, such as arms, food and medicine, and shared enmity against other members of the international community. Thirdly, the Arab and Islamic agenda remains the same as it was before the US decision. The questions of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, of terrorism and oil prices, not to mention economic development and economic reform, continue to demand our attention even if our hearts remain fired by the question of Jerusalem.
The bitter reality is that the factors that govern the Palestinian question are three: might, realities on the ground, and international alliances with influential and powerful parties. The three have always worked in favour of Israel. Through education, science, technology and modernism, it has become one of the strongest countries in the region. Regardless of legal or moral differences it has had with Western countries, it has always occupied an important place in the heart of the Western world and, recently, has drawn close to Russia, China and India. However, Israel’s strongest weapon remains its ability to create realities on the ground. This has been the case from the first wave of migrations that began with World War I and continue to the present day. The settlement drive has been Israel’s means to take control of Palestine, especially after the major land grabs of 1948 and 1967. Today, there are 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and they number 40-44 per cent of the inhabitants of East Jerusalem.
The Arabs, too, have three realities on the ground. The first is that about 150,000 Palestinians defied all perils and remained in the boundaries of what is present day Israel. These now number more than 1.6 million and make up about 21 per cent of the Israeli population. They are represented by 13 members in the Knesset. Secondly, the establishment of the PA contributed to the survival of the Palestinians. There are now six million Palestinians between the Jordan River and the sea, not counting those living outside of Palestine, and about six million Jews.
Thirdly, as I write this, the majority (about 55 per cent) of the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, who are Palestinian in nationality, are still engaged in waves of fierce confrontation against the Israeli settlement drive.
The solution to this problem of creating realities on the ground was voiced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Al-Azhar conference on Jerusalem when he urged the Arab and Islamic world to go to Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories. Those who love Jerusalem should go there to prey and those who wish to save the Palestinians should help forge the demographics that work in their favour and against the geographic dimension that the Israelis have always managed to use in their favour. Unfortunately, Al-Azhar resolved to oppose travel to Jerusalem to pray in its Muslim and Christian holy sites while the city is under occupation and there remains an Israeli presence. The result is that Israel obtained exactly what it wants: a vacuum to fill and an opportunity to sever Palestine from its Arab and Islamic environment. Of what significance is it, therefore, if from time to time the Arabs win a new resolution condemning Israel and the US as long as everything returns to the way it had been before?
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly