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How Israeli control over Jerusalem destroyed its holiest sites

Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital serves to legitimise ethnic cleansing of Palestinians - Christian and Muslim alike - in the Holy Land

Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital last week was a diplomatic coup of unprecedented proportions for the Israeli government.

For decades, Israeli officials have argued that "only a free and democratic Israel will protect the holy sites of all the great faiths in Jerusalem", and thus deserve to be under its control.

In the wake of Trump's decision, commentators repeatedly parroted this claim verbatim across major media channels, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talking point that Israel ensured access for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike to their sacred spaces in Jerusalem's Old City. 

Wholesale demolition       

The claim that Israel ensures the rights of Abrahamic faiths to exist and worship in Jerusalem, however, makes sense only to observers apparently unfamiliar with the history of Israel's occupation of Jerusalem since 1967.

Since its takeover of the city, Israel has engaged in wholesale demolition of sacred sites, destruction of entire historic neighbourhoods, displacement of local residents who trace their roots in the city back generations, and the imposition of widespread restrictions on the rights of Muslim and Christian worshippers to access their holy sites. 

Israeli authorities have separated the city from its Palestinian hinterland through the imposition of a complex system of military checkpoints and permits, preventing their access and thus isolating these sites from the very communities whose identities are based on those holy places.

As a result, the majority of Palestinians, Muslims and Christians in the West Bank and Gaza are prevented from accessing the city and its holy sites.

Palestinians walk through an Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank town of Bethlehem and Jerusalem as they head to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June 2017 (AFP)

A 2011 US State Department report decried Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom of worship, noting: "Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents' ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem."

Due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Christian from anywhere else on Earth to visit Jerusalem than for a Palestinian Christian who is 15 minutes away in Bethlehem to get there.

Slow-motion 'ethnic cleansing'

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem itself, meanwhile, have limited social and political rights, even while their Jewish neighbours enjoy the full rights as citizens of Israel. For example, under Israel's "Center of Life" policy, Palestinians must prove every single year that Jerusalem is the centre of their lives; if they fail to do so for seven years straight, their residency can be revoked and they will be forced into permanent exile with no right to return.

Human Rights Watch says nearly 15,000 Palestinians have been forced out of the city as a result.

The majority of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank are prevented from accessing the city and its holy sites

Those who manage to remain, meanwhile, face a bewildering variety of restrictions. The US State Department report notes that "insurmountable barriers" block Palestinians in Jerusalem from things as simple as getting a construction permit or being able to repair one's own home, while proceeding without permission from Israeli authorities is cause for immediate demolition of Palestinian homes.

These restrictions are linked to the Israeli authorities' larger policy on the "Judaisation of Jerusalem", which requires the city maintain a 70-30 Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Given that Palestinians have historically formed the city's majority, this policy has entailed what critics deem a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.

A neighbourhood erased

These policies are not new; they began on the first day that Israel occupied Jerusalem.

Little remembered today is the fact that the Israeli military's arrival in Jerusalem was accompanied by the demolition of two historic neighbourhoods: the Moroccan Quarter and the Syriac Quarter.

The Moroccan Quarter's history dates back to the 1300s when it is believed to have been founded by the son of Saladin some years after Jerusalem was liberated from Crusaders' control. As historian Thomas Abowd has documented, it became home to Moroccan pilgrims who settled in Jerusalem over time.

A photo taken after Israeli forces stormed the al-Aqsa compound in September 2015 after dawn prayers (MEE)

Abutting the Wailing Wall, the Moroccan Quarter was an important site of the kind of religious coexistence that long characterised Muslim and Jewish relations in Palestine.

Jewish worshippers walked through the alleyways of the mostly Muslim quarter to reach one of Judaism's most holy sites, while local Muslims passed the Wailing Wall en route to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound located just above it.

When Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the Moroccan Quarter was its first target.

Residents were given just two hours to leave; hundreds fled with few possessions under the watch of the Israeli military, who immediately began clearing the area. Israel demolished hundreds of homes, a number of Islamic shrines, and killed a number of local residents who did not evacuate in time.

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This horrific destruction of Jerusalem’s urban fabric left 650 Palestinians homeless and was accomplished to create the Wailing Wall Plaza, which today is a major site of Jewish worship. The fact that it was accomplished through the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes is roundly forgotten today.

The Syriac Quarter, meanwhile, was Israel's second target. This neighbourhood was home to Christian refugees who fled the mass killings of Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire in the late 1910s, along with Armenians

These Syriac Christians had in the intervening decades become an integral part of Palestinian society, building homes in the area around an ancient Syriac church in the Old City. 

The story of Joseph Khano

When Israel invaded Jerusalem in 1967, many fled their homes in terror. Hundreds became refugees yet again as Israeli authorities took over property after property in the area in order to expand the Jewish Quarter next door, which ballooned to three times in size over its original area at the price of its Palestinian Christian neighbours. 

Those Syriacs who fled Jerusalem had their residency and right to return revoked; many of those who stayed, meanwhile, have gone into exile over time, pushed out by the same Israeli policies that have made Palestinian life in Jerusalem unbearable.

The life story of Joseph Khano, a Syriac man from Jerusalem I interviewed, illustrates how the Israeli occupation has taken a toll on Palestinian Syriacs.

Khano's parents fled the mass killings in Ottoman Turkey to find a refuge in Palestine, and he grew up in Qatamon, a wealthy Palestinian neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. 

In 1948, Zionist militias expelled all Palestinians from West Jerusalem, part of the 750,000 Palestinians forced from their home due to Israel’s creation. His family fled to the Old City in East Jerusalem, which came under Jordanian control.

They found refuge in St Mark's Monastery, a Syriac church at the neighbourhood’s heart believed to date to the 5th century.

Saturday of Fire celebrations in Bethlehem (MEE / Alex Shams)

At the time of Israel’s 1967 invasion, Khano was travelling in Lebanon; as a result, he was forbidden from ever returning. He only managed to make it back in by swimming across the Jordan River and bribing Israeli officials. He was lucky; in 1967, 300,000 Palestinians fled their homes as refugees, the vast majority forbidden from ever returning.

Today, the Syriac Quarter is a shell of itself, the majority of its homes were taken over by Israeli authorities and its Palestinian inhabitants were replaced by Israeli settlers.

Al-Aqsa under threat

Israel's destruction of the Moroccan and Syriac Quarters of Jerusalem in 1967 reveal that the destruction of the city's historic urban fabric, it's holy sites and Palestinian character, have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of the military occupation of the city.

These threats to Palestinian holy sites are not merely a thing of the past. Over the last decade, Israel has permitted excavations underneath the al-Aqsa mosque compound that have led to a series of home collapses and cave-ins threatening nearby homes.

Linked to an attempt to expand a Jewish history theme park - the City of David, built on land confiscated from Palestinians in Jerusalem's Silwan neighbourhood - Palestinians fear the excavations threaten al-Aqsa's structural integrity. 

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Concerns regarding the digging is aggravated by the Israeli authorities' repeated destruction of Islamic sites in the vicinity of al-Aqsa. In 2016, Israel’s Antiquities Authorities demolished several historic graves in a nearby cemetery.

And over the last few decades, large parts of Jerusalem's Mamilla Cemetery have been razed and hundreds of tombs destroyed in order to build, believe it or not, a "Museum of Tolerance". 

Through its system of permits and checkpoints, Israel refuses to respect the rights of Palestinian worshippers, Christian and Muslim alike, to access their holy sites. It systematically discriminates against its Palestinian residents as a part of its Judaisation of Jerusalem policies. 

Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital serves to legitimise discrimination against Palestinians in the Holy Land, and it furthers a process of slow-motion ethnic cleansing whose roots date from the 1948 Nakba.

- Alex Shams is an Iranian-American writer and PhD student of Anthropology at @UChicago. Previously based in Palestine. Former editor of @MaanNewsAgency.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Unrest continued into night as Israeli forces entered mosque to evacuate protesters (MEE/Mahfouz Abu Turk)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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