Why Declaring Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel is a Big Deal

Jerusalem is easily one of my favorite places in the world. I am in love with it and everyone I met there. However, the city is tense for lack of a better word. Even before leaving Tel Aviv, my friends were talking very cautiously. For good reason. The religious and ethnic divides are very apparent, and it feels like everyone is just waiting for something bad to happen–understandably, given the history. Which is why when Trump publicly recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel I took a very sharp, nervous deep breath in–It’s a huge, provocative statement.

This is not an opinion piece on whether Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel or Palestine–it’s a sensitive, emotional issue for all sides. I was once very hard to one side of this conflict, but once you really start listing to all sides…you realize it’s not as black and white as it seems from the outside. I’m happy to talk personally with people about this, but I’d highly suggest anyone who wants to understand the perspectives/emotions/etc of Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis to google opinion pieces or ask someone you know with those experiences.

Instead, this is a briefing for those who don’t know what the hell is going on and why this was such a big deal. Purposefully, I’m leaving out many internal conflicts and only focusing on Jerusalem’s status

To understand what’s going on, you need to understand the history of the State of Israel and its conflicts.

The region we today call Israel-Palestine was an Ottoman territory in the early 1900s. After World War I, European powers carved up the Middle East with Britain taking control of this area. During this time period in Europe, Zionism, or Jewish Nationalism, was becoming popular in Europe where Jews were experiencing horrible persecution–If you think extreme anti-Semitism started with World War II…I got different news for you, buddy. Zionism, very simply, is the idea that Jews aren’t a religious group but an ethnicity, and they need their own State. For many European Jews, that nation was their historical homeland in the Middle East–Israel. Jews have always been a major demographic in what is now Israel-Palestine. However, in the beginning of the 1900s and especially around World War II, the region saw an influx of Jewish immigration. While it’s very easy to buy into the idea that what European Jews did is akin to the brutal white, christian colonialism we all know and love…It’s different…and a lot of Israeli wrongdoings aren’t a result of European, colonialist thinking but of the identity politics and nationalism that developed in this era and region. European Jews immigrating to this land were fleeing for their lives in many cases. Most were coming to live their lives not take over a territory and push everyone else out.

What tf happened then? Well, like any region that receives a large influx of immigrants, there was unrest and animosity grew on all sides. There was already religious conflict boiling in the region and as Jewish populations rose, they became targets. There was a shit ton of violence and uprisings, the British were like uh…no, tried to suppress the uprisings, and banned Jewish Immigration in an effort to quell sectarian violence. To which, the Jews in Mandated Palestine formed a resistance against. To keep things short, there continued to be a shit ton of sectarian violence, and the British couldn’t handle the mess they created so they were like get us the fuck out of here. 

So in 1947, the UN proposed a partition plan that created separate, terribly-drawn Jewish and Arab States with Jerusalem as an international city–like that was ever going to work. The Jews gladly accepted this proposal. However, the Arab states surrounding Mandated Palestine were pissed off. To them, this was another act of European colonialism that they’d just gained independence from, and they were not having it. So in 1948, right after Israel declared independence, a coalition of Arab armies declared war on Israel.

Somewhat miraculously, Israel defeated this coalition. With that victory they took land that under the original partition would have been Palestinian, and they took control of West Jerusalem and declared it their capital–though not fully pleased with this as all their holy sites were in East Jerusalem. The West Bank was now under Jordanian control and Gaza was under Egyptian control. During the war, many Palestinians were pushed out of their homes by Israeli forces and many left voluntarily thinking they’d come back after the war was over. This created a major Palestinian refugee dilemma. Additionally, a major Arab Jewish diaspora that found refuge in Israel was created with the increased persecution in Muslim countries.

In 1967, Israel and the neighboring Arab states had another war–the Six Day War. Israel, again, won and this time took control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem,Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights in Syria–Later giving the Sinai back to Egypt and giving Palestinians some autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Six Day War is significant here because it “reunified” Jerusalem under Israeli control even though a strict divide remained between East Jerusalem’s Arab populations and West Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Fun Fact: I was in Jerusalem for “Jerusalem Day” which is an Israeli holiday celebrating this unification. I was hopping off a bus from Ramallah and into a crowed of angry looking Palestinians watching Israelis march through East Jerusalem. I noped the fuck out of there only to get sandwiched into the middle of that insane marching crowed in West Jerusalem. I generally try to take the travel advice that tells you to avoid large crowed, but Jerusalem had a different plan for me.

Anyway, If we’re talking very strictly in terms of power, this unification legitimized all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital through their ability to maintain control of it. While Israelis maintain control of Jerusalem, Many see them as occupiers who have no legitimate right to the city as it wasn’t part of the 1947 partition plan and instead seized from Jordan in 1967. However, Even though Palestinians aspired for Jerusalem to be their sovereign capital and today consider Jerusalem, or at least East Jerusalem, their capital, they’ve never had any control of it like Israel has (Jordanian control doesn’t count in my book). Does that mean this is right? Does that mean Palestinian have no right to Jerusalem? I’ll leave that moral debate up to you.

So why isn’t this matter settled? If Israel has been controlling Jerusalem and has their government there why is this a big deal? It’s still a big deal because the status of Jerusalem is a major conflict in the peace process. Both parties want Jerusalem as their capital, and, usually, Jerusalem as an international city or a formally divided city is floated as a solution to that–Trump’s announcement along with preexisting internal politics delegitimize those options. Before the intifadas, dividing Jerusalem along with other land was naturally part of the peace negotiations, however difficult that was. The negotiators saw it has a necessary sacrifice for peace. However, with the increased violence on both sides, the walls, the suicide bombings and everything in between…Israelis and Palestinians are rightfully disenchanted with the idea of peace ever being an option. Neither side sees each other as ready to compromise and are moving towards acting in their self interest rather than for peace.

However, with Israel’s push to claim all of Jerusalem as theirs and Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel…it potentially takes Jerusalem completely off the table for Palestinians when historically It was always on the table for peace negotiations. Usually peace negotiations have been mediated by the United States; however, if they continue to play that role while holding the stance that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, it makes it incredibly hard to move peace forward with Palestinians as the issue of Jerusalem, a deal breaking issue, seems uncompromisable. While neither party has been interested in negotiations for quite some time, this seems to push them farther away.

To some, Trump’s announcement is a recognition and a legitimizer to the reality on the ground. To others, it’s the destruction of the peace process, the loss of hope, and the endangerment of people living in the region.

Does this really destroy the peace process? I don’t know. I don’t even really think there is much of one anymore so maybe this will reawaken a need for resolution. Regardless, I’m going to be watching carefully as this continues and as the U.S. plans to move their embassy to Jerusalem…Hoping for peace in Jerusalem and hopefully the entire region, always.

This was not nearly the full story, but I hope this was a starting point for someone to learn more and engage with others. I’m sure I got something wrong or missed something in my efforts to not bore you with a billion page history paper…feel free to discuss anything I missed below!

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Monique LeBlanc was born in Lafayette, LA and is currently living in New Orleans, LA working in government finance and exploring her creative passions. She's an aspiring world traveler with a love for food and food culture. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of REVA CREW, a young women's professionals organization in New Orleans. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies with minors in Arabic, Religious Studies and WGS.
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